Home We Don’t Have to Sacrifice Students’ Privacy for Campus Security

We Don’t Have to Sacrifice Students’ Privacy for Campus Security

Colleges and universities face a distinctly modern conundrum: They want and need to keep students safe, but smart security technologies that can track and monitor students’ activities on and off campus threaten their right to privacy. Schools and technology vendors must collaborate to find solutions that increase campus security while also protecting individual privacy.

The Privacy Problem

The very nature of some of these advanced tools requires the collection and storage of sensitive personally identifiable information. The risk of a data breach is one obvious concern — but so is the destruction of the university experience as we know it.

College is a time for personal growth and learning.

Imagine how violating and restrictive it would’ve felt if the administration of your college could’ve determined where you were on campus at any time and who you were speaking with on social media.

But it’s a growing possibility that schools will overstep the fine line between student safety and individual rights.

Major Risks Accompany New Security Tools

Facial recognition technology poses a particularly acute risk to individual privacy. Schools already track students to some extent with their ID cards — it would hardly be a big stretch for them to implement facial recognition technology to increase tracking abilities.

Law enforcement has already explored this tool, but it’s proven largely ineffective and invasive. For instance, when London’s Metropolitan Police trialed the technology throughout 2018 and 2019, it stopped 42 individuals but only identified eight of them correctly.

The Danger of Social Surveillance

Advanced social surveillance is another emerging risk for student privacy. Universities already have a lot of data at their fingertips that poses a security risk for both students and staff. That danger grows when you fold in advances in data and natural language processing that make social media posts and other information easy for administrators to track and analyze.

The last thing a university should want is for these technologies to be used against its students — just imagine the public relations crisis that could occur. 

In addition, schools and universities haven’t even begun to contemplate all the data complexities that come with using these new security tools. How will the data be stored? When will it be deleted? Can law enforcement access it? If so, when? Who else can access it? These are just a few of the many concerns that must be addressed.

Privacy and Security Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

The privacy concerns accompanying new security tools are considerable. But that’s not to say that colleges and universities shouldn’t employ the latest technology to increase student safety. Campus administrators just need to do so carefully.

They should work hand in hand with security companies to strategically employ and use the technology, setting up strict rules for how and when the tool will come into play and by whom the information can be accessed and used.

If colleges and universities implement new security tools with the following three strategies in mind, they’ll be more likely to keep the privacy — and safety — of their students intact:

1. Earn stakeholder buy-in. 

This includes faculty, staff, and students. Inform each stakeholder audience of the key security concerns and threats of any technology you’re considering.

Open a dialogue about how people feel about security on campus and crime-prevention measures before you implement anything.

You may find people feel comfortable with some security technologies but not others.

The University of Washington Bothell provides a solid framework for accomplishing this. The school surveyed students, faculty, and staff on campus security to understand where people felt safe and what areas needed additional security. The survey found that more than half of the participants were either moderately or highly concerned about a campus shooter, and the majority agreed that security cameras would make them feel safer.

2. Enact specific solutions to specific problems. 

Tools like facial recognition and social media monitoring promise a lot but are hard to implement at scale to target specific problems.

Instead of relying on one solution to solve all your problems, start with the problem first.

Determine a specific problem you want to solve, then adopt a specific technology solution to solve it.

Luckily, the security industry is flooded with new technologies that can address virtually any problem that colleges and universities might encounter — without invading privacy.

From threat-detection technology, which can detect threats without invading privacy, to systems that detect intruders to help schools respond to theft, there are plenty of options that beef up security without requiring the collection and storage of students’ PII.

For example, a handful of universities, including Temple University and Duke University, recently replaced ID cards with students’ phones. While this method requires students to relinquish a similar amount of PII, it’s both more convenient and a step toward advanced security across campus. It helps limit the possibility of intruders picking up a dropped ID card and gaining access to residence halls and labs.

3. Plan security holistically.

No security solution should be considered in isolation. You must consider a number of “side effects,” such as the data it requires and creates and the extra processing it needs. You should also consider how the new solution will work with existing security processes and personnel. 

Before launching ahead full speed, design a trial period that will reveal how the new technology will work and what processes will be required.

Campus security and student privacy are not mutually exclusive. By approaching security smartly and working together with security firms to implement specific solutions to specific problems, colleges and universities can advance security without transforming the campus into a surveillance state.

Image credit: Ameer Basheer — Unsplash

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Ben Ziomek
CPO and co-founder of Actuate

CPO and co-founder of Actuate. He works in AI-based product development to build software that employs deep learning to automatically identify weapons in real-time security feeds.

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