Law in the Internet Society

Why Ask For Permission, When One Just Needs To Ask For Forgiveness (Edited)

-- By EvanZuckerman - 01 Dec 2014

Cameras. Again.

Cameras are ubiquitous. Everyone knows this. In fact, almost two decades ago we knew our activity was being closely monitored – be it by computers or cameras. If you’re a student at Seattle University, you might have read their policy, which states that “it is not necessary to obtain a release for any individual photographed in … classrooms.”

However, omnipresent cameras’ potential efficacy and/or virtues are not the only issues to discuss; we should also focus on those who control their “switches” and how their power can lead them to blind support of information-gathering, regardless of collateral damage. This is a result that cannot continue unabated.

Humans, Not Doormats

Seattle University disclosing their camera policy in a handbook – think how often one reads an iTunes disclosure requirement or a Facebook privacy “agreement” – is uncomfortable, but understandable, somewhat, for security purposes. The school’s policy is made more reasonable, yet still concerning by a disclaimer: “It is important to obtain a Photography Release for any photograph that will become the centerpiece of a marketing or advertising initiative" (what the hell does non-centerpiece not cover?).

If Seattle University used their cameras for human subjects research then they should be forced to explicitly point out how they plan on seeking to strip individuals of any semblance of privacy. This can be accomplished through a mandatory statement at an orientation, an informed consent form, or a referendum on the necessity of the cameras.

When research is being done on humans – an example will be immediately touched upon – as opposed to purposeful and benign security cameras, then indirect procedural steps, e.g., putting in a nondescript sentence in a student handbook, are not sufficient.

Harvard's Human Subject Project

Unbeknownst to Harvard’s professors and students, a clandestine research project used cameras (“pipes”) in ten lecture halls allegedly to populate data sets reporting general attendance. A federally mandated review board approved the project. Harvard vice-provost, Peter Bol, stated that the board “concluded that the study did not constitute human-subjects research.” As a result, over two thousand students were photographed.

Bol claims that no notice was given to students, solely to make sure the data was accurate, and not, instead, for any purpose related to professor quality or individual student behavior. Bol claims the cameras were not “tracing students, but seats.” Harvard claims the photos were destroyed after the research project.

Harvard has since amended their policy, and now, before more switches can kowtow to data gathering at any expense, they will need to ask a Harvard dean – note, still not the human subjects - for permission. Although this is a nice gesture, the board has already set a precedent of forging ahead by mining the data machine without regard to consequences. Whether it is the board or a new head, the pipes are now made malleable to the discretion of the switch controllers.


Surveillance has numerous benefits (and negative effects), but there is a difference between typical surveillance and more secretive surveillance. Harvard professor Peter Burgard stated: “The idea that photographs will be taken of a class in progress without having informed the students, much less the professor, is something very different . . . [it] is [secret] surveillance.”

This type of uninformed surveillance should be absolutely minimized, unless there is an extreme exigency. Determining attendance records does not anywhere near qualify. Particularly because there are less invasive methods of taking attendance, such as the students raising their hands or having an in-class quiz. Or, Harvard could have simply informed the students of the cameras and their purpose. The researchers’ claim that it was necessary to collect reliable data and to eliminate human error and possible disruptive effects does not rise to this level of extreme exigency (and additionally, the students likely would have forgotten about them by the next day, but the secretive nature of the surveillance would be cured through the disclosure).

As discussed above concerning Seattle University’s policy, when surveillance’s purpose crosses the bright line from security to human subject research, the surveillance itself should not be allowed unless the subjects affirmatively choose to allow it. This argument is further and direly strengthened when the surveillance is secretive.

The line between privacy and surveillance should not be inched forward for just any marginally useful purpose—while these little encroachments may seem useful and harmless, the machinery of human technology, as discussed in class, has the ability erode the boundary between freedom and despotism. As one of Harvard’s professors, Harry Lewis, stated: “Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean that it should be.” As Lewis alludes to, we must examine who determines the balance between information gathering and privacy, which in turn determines where our priorities stand. Here, although not despotism, we’re inching further from freedom, even if this just seems to be a benign research project. And it shouldn’t take an infringement on professors’ perceived rights – as opposed to students’ – to make this connection.

Don't Just Shrug – Information & Privacy

With our current technological capabilities there are nascent means of analyzing human interaction, which can have gather information like never before. However, they also can infringe directly on privacy if used carelessly or with impunity, as Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s data collection policies exemplified. If we are too loose, and let information gathering be our north star - at the expense of privacy - the brakes have truly fallen off.

Harvard’s project could have been a tipping point, but, alas, it was not. Humans seem to be continuously fascinated by the new tricks data collection can perform and have not fully reckoned with the consequences of it yet. Until that tipping point is reached, Bol and the rest will say screw it, after all, why ask for permission, when one just needs to ask for forgiveness and a dean will sign off next time.


Webs Webs

r3 - 06 Jan 2015 - 05:56:31 - EvanZuckerman
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