Graduate Students Analyze, Crack, and Remove Under-Desk Surveillance Devices

Graduate Students Analyze, Crack, and Remove Under-Desk Surveillance Devices
“Graduate students at Northeastern University were able to organize and beat back an attempt at introducing invasive surveillance devices that were quietly placed under desks at their school,” reports Motherboard:

Early in October, Senior Vice Provost David Luzzi installed motion sensors under all the desks at the school’s Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex (ISEC), a facility used by graduate students and home to the “Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute” which studies surveillance. These sensors were installed at night — without student knowledge or consent — and when pressed for an explanation, students were told this was part of a study on “desk usage,” according to a blog post by Max von Hippel, a Privacy Institute PhD candidate who wrote about the situation for the Tech Workers Coalition’s newsletter….

Students began to raise concerns about the sensors, and an email was sent out by Luzzi attempting to address issues raised by students…. Luzzi wrote, the university had deployed “a Spaceti occupancy monitoring system” that would use heat sensors at groin level to “aggregate data by subzones to generate when a desk is occupied or not.” Luzzi added that the data would be anonymized, aggregated to look at “themes” and not individual time at assigned desks, not be used in evaluations, and not shared with any supervisors of the students. Following that email, an impromptu listening session was held in the ISEC. At this first listening session, Luzzi asked that grad student attendees “trust the university since you trust them to give you a degree….”

After that, the students at the Privacy Institute, which specialize in studying surveillance and reversing its harm, started removing the sensors, hacking into them, and working on an open source guide so other students could do the same. Luzzi had claimed the devices were secure and the data encrypted, but Privacy Institute students learned they were relatively insecure and unencrypted…. After hacking the devices, students wrote an open letter to Luzzi and university president Joseph E. Aoun asking for the sensors to be removed because they were intimidating, part of a poorly conceived study, and deployed without IRB approval even though human subjects were at the center of the so-called study.
von Hippel notes that many members of the computer science department were also in a union, and thus networked together for a quick mass response. Motherboard writes that the controversy ultimately culminated with another listening session in which Luzzi “struggles to quell concerns that the study is invasive, poorly planned, costly, and likely unethical.”

“Afterwards, von Hippel took to Twitter and shares what becomes a semi-viral thread documenting the entire timeline of events from the secret installation of the sensors to the listening session occurring that day. Hours later, the sensors are removed…”

Read more of this story at Slashdot.