Privacy Concerns

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featured-tiners-tkeData and privacy concerns are the topic of constant news and media coverage. Who is watching you when, who is gathering data on you and what type are questions that are always being asked. Our network security teams are very educated in these areas and work tirelessly to make sure our institutions (and therefore our customers) data is protected.

We continue to look for solutions with a privacy component not necessarily related to data, but more because people are nosy. I have written on several occasions about our class capture options at the college, along with the web conferencing that we have put into many classrooms and meeting spaces. All of these systems have cameras and microphones and the ability to web conference. Several of them also have the ability to record what happens in the space. A few of them have the ability for teleconferencing.

We are not as worried about students filming something that happens in a class and using it an inappropriate or out of context manner. The fact is that with mobile phones and other devices, a student already has access to technology in order to secretly record a class. Let me be clear that I am not saying this is not a problem. It can be, especially in a college classroom where lots of thoughtful and charged conversations can happen. It would be very easy for someone to turn a recording into something that taken out of context looked very bad. What I am saying is that I don’t think the technology we put into rooms aides that type of invasion of privacy.

The type that I am most concerned about is people, students, faculty or staff who want to hear conversations of which they should not be part. In some cases, our technology could facilitate that. The easiest way to do such a thing would be to walk into a room before a meeting were to occur, and start a recording onto a USB stick. Then, after the meeting ends retrieve the stick. Very non-technical, but very effective.

In the fall, we read about an uproar at Harvard in which researchers were using cameras in classrooms to study attendance. They did not identify anyone, they did not keep the pictures, and all images were stills. Yet, the fact that they took images without someone’s permission upset many students and faculty. At my institution, we realized we should be taking steps to prevent this before it became an issue.

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Our first step is to add privacy buttons on every touch panel. This is a button that appears on every screen of every touch panel in a room with cameras and microphones. Users can simply press that one button and the cameras are shut off, microphones are muted, any recording taking place stops, our USB-computer bridge is muted and our phone line is put on hook. With that one button press, the person in the room is able to ensure privacy. Of course, someone in the room could still record with a phone, but that has already been the case for years.

The problem we have with this approach is that you need to know the button exists and you need to remember to use it. Chances are most of our room users never even consider the possibility; many not even realize that there are cameras and microphones in the rooms. We have considered options, similar to On-Air lights that show a clear indication if the cameras are on, and if they are recording or streaming. We think that’s not the most aesthetically pleasing solution to address the issue. We have thought about flashing images on the touch panel when recording or streaming, in order to catch someone’s attention, but still weren’t sure if that would actually be effective. Perhaps the best solution is also the most difficult to implement: Making the camera and microphones opt-in, rather than opt out. That is to say, if you want to use the cameras, mics, etc., you need to press buttons to turn them on. This puts the onus on the person using the equipment, which is certainly rarer than people who go in the room and don’t use it. The question then becomes how do you make it easy for them to turn everything on, AND turn it back off when done? As schools continue to work as their own integrators, these are the types of questions and solutions that external integrators can provide for us. This is where their experiences dealing with so many customers will help us think problems through.