Photo Credit: pexel
Remember your college days? Looking back in hindsight, those were carefree days, without a care in the world. You were finally free of all oversight from your parents, and free to experiment in entirely new ways, away from prying eyes. College kids today must be feeling the same way, right?
Well, not so fast. Disturbing news has recently surfaced that some college campuses are using the equivalent of AI-powered spyware for surveillance purposes. They are keeping close watch on students, just to make sure they don’t do anything dangerous.
Your college campus might be more orwellian than you thought
Apparently, anywhere from 30 to 40 different college campuses around the nation are partnering with third-party software providers for surveillance software. According to these colleges, the need for this surveillance software is a direct result of all the campus mass shootings and other acts of random violence that, sadly, are all far too common. The idea here is at least well-intentioned: If AI software can be used to screen student social media posts and other correspondence, it might be able to ferret out current and future threats to student safety.
The best-known example thus far is UCLA, which used software called Social Sentiment (now renamed “Detect”) to track potential threats to campus safety. UCLA claims that it only provided surveillance on UCLA-affiliated accounts, and only looked for a small sampling of keywords. But, on further investigation, that wasn’t exactly the case. The software used AI to check for over 500,000 keywords and phrases, and its use apparently was not limited to UCLA-affiliated accounts. In short, UCLA may have been deliberately tracking their students, without their knowledge.
Moreover, UCLA appeared to be looking for far more than just random gunmen and warning signs of future violence. They appeared to be using the tool to track and monitor student demonstrators and protesters. After all, there’s nothing that a university or college president hates more than a bunch of noisy, rowdy students interrupting a busy workday.
Trade-offs for colleges
There are various trade-offs involved here. The most obvious one is the trade-off between freedom and security. We live in a dangerous era, when mass shootings seem almost commonplace. Nobody wants another Virginia Tech on their hands. So students, parents, and administrators need to accept some scaling back of their freedoms if they want to be 100% safe.
The other major trade-off involves transparency and accountability. Obviously, all this surveillance software is not going to work as well if students know that it exists. They will simply find workarounds the next time they are organizing for a protest. So college campuses apparently felt fully justified in not letting people know what they were doing. As they probably saw it, it was just a new wrinkle on other campus security measures – such as security cameras in front of campus buildings, or new locks on student dormitories.
Keep colleges accountable
But there is an accountability angle here. Only Orwellian governments get to claim that they bear no responsibility or accountability. If parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year, and are entrusting colleges with the well-being of their children, they deserve the right to know what’s going on. Who wants someone snooping on their kids? There is a difference between security and surveillance, and the line seems to be blurring far too much to be comfortable with going forward.