Harvard used cameras to track attendance without telling students

You’ve probably had professors that got on your case for missing class, but they don’t hold a candle to what Harvard University’s faculty tried this past spring. The institution conducted an experiment that used surveillance cameras to track attendance, snapping photos that a computer analyzed to determine the number of empty seats in a given lecture hall. While the system couldn’t identify individual students, the school didn’t tell the 2,000 people involved that they were under watch — they had no way to object to the test.

The researchers say they otherwise followed the right steps, including submitting the experiment to a review board in advance and deleting the photos as soon as everything wrapped up. However, the decision to spy on students has still triggered enough of an uproar that Harvard is rethinking its strategy. The university is handing the issue to an oversight committee that was already looking into worries about email, and the review board will now refer these sorts of studies to the undergraduate Dean’s office and (hopefully) prevent ethics violations before they happen. It’s not clear if other institutions will pay attention to this incident and avoid intrusive technology in the classroom, but it at least serves as an important precedent.

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