During the spring 2014 semester, Harvard students were subjected to covert surveillance via hidden cameras placed in classrooms. They were photographed without any notice.
Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, Peter K. Bol, finally admitted that this surveillance took place, in response to a question from Computer Science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68, who learned of the covert photographing from two of his colleagues. The two unidentified colleagues found out that covert surveillance of the students took place when a senior Central Administration official called them in to discuss the results.
The students, who were photographed without their knowledge or consent, have not yet been told of the study. “Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean that it should be,” Lewis said. “And if you watch people electronically and don’t tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards.”
Lewis asked Harvard University President Drew G. Faust to promise that all students and faculty involved will be informed that they were secretly photographed.
Bol attempted to justify the electronic monitoring as part of a larger research effort to study student attendance in lectures. The study was part of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, which falls under Bol’s purview.
In an email sent after the meeting, Bol promised that he would, “in short order, work to inform all of the students in the courses involved in the study about the fact that their images may have been taken, but were subsequently destroyed.”
Prior to beginning the study, Bol was given approval by Harvard’s Institutional Review Board, a federally mandated body that assesses academic research. Shockingly, members of that committee said that his work “did not constitute human subjects research,” and, as such, did not require notification or permission of those involved.
Following Bol’s comments, Harvard University President Drew G. Faust added that she would refer the study to an oversight committee, which was previously formed to address email surveillance. “I indeed do take very seriously the important questions that this incident raises,” Faust said. “I wish to submit this incident to [the committee] for comment and exploration. I think that was what the committee was set up to do.”
German professor Peter J. Burgard was puzzled as to how this surveillance was not considered “spying.” He added that the University has cameras in place for security and protection, but the study in question was “Orwellian” in nature.