Harvard photographs thousands of students for study without permission

  • Harvard University photographed more than 2,000 students without their knowledge for a study on attendance.
  • Faculty and students have raised concerns about the privacy of the study and photographs.
  • Harvard said all students and faculty who may have been affected by the photographs will be notified, if they haven’t been already.

Harvard University is facing backlash from its second privacy violation after the university admitted to secretly photographing more than 2,000 students for an education-related study.

According to Peter Bol, the professor and vice provost who oversaw the research project, the study involved implementing cameras in 10 lecture halls in order to track students’ attendance rates through a process of picture-taking that counted which seats were filled. Pictures were taken every minute within the lecture halls; students and faculty were not notified in order to keep the study honest.

"I think the school has a huge responsibility to set the standard for acceptable and respectable research conduct. Harvard has failed miserably in this instance.”   

“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,” Harry Lewis, a computer science professor, said at a faculty meeting Tuesday night.

Lewis also told the Boston Globe that he believes the study should not have been conducted without consent from the students and professors.

Harvard sophomore, Alex Yang told Campus Reform Thursday that he believes the university has violated the rights of its students

“I believe the move was an egregious violation of privacy,” Yang said in an interview with Campus Reform. “I think we live in an age where our methods of research are still trying to keep up with the rapid development of technology. And often the lines between acceptable and invasive research are blurred because of the nature of technology. As one of many leaders is academic research, I think the school has a huge responsibility to set the standard for acceptable and respectable research conduct. Harvard has failed miserably in this instance.”

The study was conducted by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) and published by Professor Samuel T. Molton. The study was revealed at a HILT conference in September when Moulton presented extensive data on the attendance patterns of students within the Arts and Sciences College. However, what Moulton neglected to mention was how the data was collected.

As of today, Michael Rutter, a university spokesman, said in a statement that all but two professors have been notified, and he is committed to notifying students that may have been affected.

Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, says that the situation will be reviewed by a panel that oversees the school’s electronic communications policies.

Harvard was also recently under investigation for violating privacy when former Dean Evelynn Hammonds authorized the search of thousands of faculty emails to resolve a faculty leak in a cheating scandal.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @y_mdbailey

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