Harvard Secretly Photographs Profs, Students

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Harvard University has admitted that it secretly photographed around 2,000 students in 10 different lecture halls this past spring as part of a study on classroom attendance. Since that admission, the university has received complaints from students and faculty about breaching privacy.

The news of the photographs was disclosed at a faculty meeting last week, reports the Associated Press via the Boston Herald.

The experiment was conducted by Harvard’s Initiative for Learning and Teaching and was overseen by Vice Provost Peter Bol. The university’s Institutional Review Board authorized the research.

“You should do studies only with the consent of the people being studied,” Harvard computer science professor Harry Lewis said in an interview Wednesday.

He said professors benefit from feedback on teaching that such research would produce. But, as he told the audience at the faculty meeting, according to his blog: “Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean that it should be. And if you watch people electronically and don’t tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards.”

The study was not intended to trick or identify students, according to researchers. According to Justin Michaels from NECN, the photographs were destroyed and only the data was kept for research use.

The protocol for the experiment was to install a camera in 10 lecture halls and they would snap a picture once every minute. Then the images were processed through software that counted empty and taken seats and recorded that data, writes Michael McDonald for Bloomberg.

According to Bol the review board “concluded that the study did not constitute human subject-research”. Therefore teachers and students were not notified before or after the photographs were taken because they did not want to risk potential bias, writes Matt Rocheleau for the Boston Globe.

Students criticized the university after finding out about the research.

Brett Biebelberg, a junior and a member of the undergraduate student government, called the study’s secretive nature “strikingly hypocritical,” given that the university recently adopted its first-ever honor code, which asks the community to vow to produce academic work of integrity.

This is not the first time Harvard has had a major privacy breach. A year and a half ago it came to light that the administration searched thousands of Harvard student e-mail accounts due to a cheating scandal. This event led to the implementation of a new privacy policy, which has now been questioned because of the research.

According to Michael Patrick Rutter, a Harvard spokesman stated that Bol is committed to reaching out to every faculty member and student who could have been photographed through enrollment data.

“We know there are hundreds of cameras all over Harvard, and we accept that they’re there for protection and safety and security,” Peter Burgard, a professor of German at Harvard, said. “But 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. That is surveillance.”