Privacy is (almost) dead

By Jacob Kaplan '20 February 19, 2020

Privacy is dead. It died unnoticed while everyone watched. In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked the existence of PRISM, an National Security Agency system that collected private data from cooperative internet services, like Google, to the media. Leading up to the general election in 2016, Cambridge Analytica claimed to have 4,000 points of data on 230,000,000 Americans. As of now, Amazon Ring has partnered with over 800 police departments and offered them access to footage of millions of its customers' security cameras. By 2022, the Department of Homeland Security expects to have unique biometric data on 260,000,000 Americans. Powerful organizations, private and public, have consolidated control and increased profits through mass surveillance to the point that no reasonable American can expect to live a private life. We are numb to headlines like Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy, U.S. Government Plans to Collect DNA From Detained Immigrants, and Police arrested an innocent man for murder using Google location data. Surveillance is pervasive, overwhelming, and unavoidable. What can we do about the most powerful institutions in the world collecting our information? The short answer is basically nothing. The longer answer is more optimistic.

Privacy concerns on campus

According to an anonymous source in the Rensselaer Union Student Senate, Rensselaer has entered a contract with Milestone Systems, a surveillance camera and video management retailer. While the company does not advertise facial recognition software, it supports 49 plugins that include facial recognition. There is little evidence to suggest mass surveillance and facial recognition reduce crime and ample evidence suggesting that it increases racial profiling and wrongful arrests. Facial recognition is often built on biased data that decreases its accuracy. A recent study found that some facial recognition software is one hundred times more likely to misidentify a black person than a white person.

A proposed New York State Senate Bill S7645 would give Public Safety officers "Officer of Peace" status. Peace officer status grants the power to conduct warrantless searches and arrests, carry weapons, and use deadly force. While many other large colleges have police forces with these abilities and RPI officers already had most of these abilities, it is clearly part of a larger trend at RPI to militarize the campus. Director of Public Safety Vadim Thomas spent a year running the FBI's Albany office after an illustrious career investigating Russian organized crime and Afghan public corruption before being brought in to manage Public Safety's 29-person staff.

The response to this bill was immediate. Students began talking about it on Reddit and reaching out to Senator Neil Breslin, the sponsor of the bill. According to Director of Media Relations and Communications Reeve Hamilton, "This designation would enable Public Safety officers to be more responsive during mental health interventions on campus by allowing them to transport individuals in need of emergency services to healthcare facilities. Peace officer status also helps these officers gain access to state and national crime data, expediting their investigations and enhancing their overall effectiveness." Why Public Safety needs to act as an ambulance is unclear. It is equally unclear as to why Public Safety, whose jurisdiction covers RPI's 275 acres (roughly 0.43 square miles), needs access to national crime data to help their investigations. This bill and the potential new surveillance system is an attempt by RPI to expand its jurisdiction, consolidate control, surveil students, and collect data.

Beyond privacy concerns, these developments will determine what kind of college RPI becomes. Despite being private, RPI has a real connection to the surrounding community and benefits from it. Public events create diverse crowds of RPI students, faculty, staff, Troy residents, and students from neighboring schools. Public buildings allow visitors to roam the campus and give prospective students a sense of what attending RPI may be like. Do we want to feel like we're being watched? Do we want to be surrounded by armed Public Safety officers? Do we want to feel like intruders at our own school? Do we want our visitors and guests to feel unwelcome? I don't. If you do, please keep reading.

I don't care about privacy because I have nothing to hide.

That might be the case now, but it might not stay that way. In the 1920s and 30s, American socialists felt as though they had nothing to hide because that political position was not seen as that extreme. In the 1950s, that changed. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee dug up membership records, meeting notes, and publications from that era and used it to attack politicians, scientists, and writers. Security clearances were revoked, jobs were lost, and reputations were ruined. If you have nothing to hide, it's because you currently benefit from the status quo—but the status quo can change. You may be part of an RPI club that has not gotten into any trouble, but if it ever does, do you want RPI to have a vast backlog of data about your involvement with that group?

I am willing to give up some of my privacy because I don't feel safe.

This is an understandable way to feel. It seems like we get RPI Alerts every week about stabbings, muggings, and robbery. It's obvious there needs to be some security on and around campus, but there is little to suggest that these measurements would help. In fact, it might only increase our fear and insecurity. It's also important to note that while Troy does have a higher crime rate than most American cities, it is predominantly property crime (about 30.83 per 1,000 residents) and not violent crime (about 5.97 per 1,000 residents). This means you're more likely to have your car broken into or your bike lock cut than you are to be attacked on the street (if that's any comfort).

I agree this is bad. But what can I do?

Something. As an individual, you can do the following:

  1. Voice your opinion on the bill
  2. Sign this petition calling for RPI to preemptively ban facial recognition
  3. Call Senator Neil Breslin
  4. Talk to a Student Senator about getting RPI to ban facial recognition, although Vadim says they have no plans to use it
  5. Get in touch with the NY Civil Liberties Union or Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
  6. Join the conversation on RPI's subreddit or on Rensselaer for Ethics in Science, Engineering, and Technology's discord (a groupchat, hosted by RESET, about ethics in technology)

More importantly, if you do these things, you become part of a larger group effort that might have influence. It's not so much what you can do but what we can do.

Correction: February 20, 2020
An earlier version of this article said that the new bill would allow public safety officers to conduct warrantless searches and arrests, carry weapons, and use deadly force. Peace officers are granted these powers, but public safety officers were already granted most of these from other New York State laws.