Undisclosed use of cameras roils Harvard

110614blog harvard

Harvard University is coming under fire from some quarters for having conducted class-attendance research that involved the use of video cameras in 10 lecture halls holding some 2,000 students.

While aggregate attendance was the goal of the research and individuals reportedly were not identified, criticism has resulted because the students were not told about the cameras.

Harvard computer science professor Harry Lewis tells the Boston Globe: “You should do studies only with the consent of the people being studied.”

And, according to a story in the Harvard Crimson, Lewis put it this way during a faculty meeting: “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.”

It’s difficult to argue with any of Lewis’ points. Students should have been told – they are now -- or another means of gathering the information found.

However, I also find it difficult to muster much outrage in this particular case.

Given the ubiquity of surveillance cameras today – never mind cameras in general -- is there really an expectation of privacy in a college lecture hall?

Globe reporter Todd Wallack tweeted a link to this second Crimson story “for context:”

“Harvard is home to about 200 security cameras stationed outside, across the University’s various schools, according to Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) spokesman Steven G. Catalano.”

If you’re thinking 200 cameras sounds like a lot, you should know that this story was published on May 19, 2006.

It’s fair to assume that number has grown.

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