Quicktakes: Campus Internet Surveillance

Constant Vigilance: Not Big Brother

Your university computer servers have data about your Internet usage, and Police Department Lt. Michael Morris wants to monitor what you’ve been googling. Morris’ Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed expressed a need to monitor student online activity in order to prevent tragedies like Virginia Tech from happening again. But while heightened security may be a factor in increasing safety, greater focus ought to be placed on creating a far more effective, crime-conscious public.

For instance, the U.S. has heightened its security to combat terrorism through airport restrictions and the restriction of personal rights through the Patriot Act. But even then, events such as the Christmas Day bombing attempt (where a man tried to detonate a bomb in an airplane) and a suspicious van in Times Square were both thwarted by aware citizens. The government was even warned about the bomber beforehand by his father, but that piece of intel was lost among thousands of other bits of data.

The government and schools need to use the public as a resource. Currently, airports and train stations actively remind passengers to keep an eye out for suspicious luggage, an awareness that can be applied toward schools. Students and staff can be taught how to identify disturbing behavior in individuals and have the individuals be forwarded to the proper organization, be it counseling or the police department.

It is public awareness, not curtailing students’ civil liberties, that will help prevent tragedies like Virginia Tech.
—Aleks Levin
Staff Writer

Safety Comes First With Surveillance
In his op-ed, Morris argues that student online browsing data should be subject to monitoring and analytics, because after-the-fact investigation revealed in many cases that assassins often use campus internet to stalk individuals, post threatening comments and even purchase weapons.

Morris is right. Campus violence has been on the rise for several years now, according to a study conducted jointly by the FBI, the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. By studying the paper trail of campus attacks, experts have found the path laden with warning signs. Examination of emails sent by Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman responsible for the Virginia Tech incident, would have revealed valuable insights had they been read beforehand. The same conclusion was drawn from the writings of Columbine murderers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

Not only will Morris’ proposed browsing analytics increase safety, but its relative small scale will leave student’s privacy in tact. Fears that all student browsing data would somehow be made publicly available are misguided. Morris is suggesting a scheme based on analytical threat-assessment software. Only the very few students whose browsing patterns are indicative of some kind of threatening behavior such as violence and stalking would be flagged for examination. Even then, under Morris’ plan, students could not be punished based on browsing data alone — more often, they would be recommended for psychological counseling. The plan’s goal is violence prevention, not premature prosecution, and certainly not to create a climate of fear.
— Ayan Kusari
Contributing Writer

Too Much Information to Process
According to one California State University police lieutenant, monitoring students’ online activity could be the key to preventing violence on college campuses. Lt. Michael Morris’ article in the Chronicle of Higher Education claims that data mining could be the “crystal ball” that would benefit universities. However, not only is this a major infringement of privacy, but effectively looking for threats in the online histories of thousands of college students is far from realistic.  

Once this data is collected, it must be precisely analyzed for ambiguous “signs of threat” through mining algorithms. These are similar to algorithms that allow banks to detect credit card abuse. In the case of credit cards, these algorithms are simply looking for unusual spending. When it comes to identifying troubled students, there are many more variables. Not only are there issues with properly identifying troubled students, but a plethora of time, money and staff must be employed in attempts to stop violence that may or may not occur. This is clearly a waste of resources with no guaranteed results.

Furthermore, information that students post and view online is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which blocks identifiable student information from being released without a court order. Students, like all citizens, have the right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

Colleges aren’t meant to serve as central intelligence agencies, and this act would definitely take protection too far.
— Revathy Sampath-Kumar
Staff Writer

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