Rising surveillance in campuses have students concerned about privacy

Universities are gathering more student data, have increased CCTV surveillance. This comes with increased internet-shutdowns to prevent protests.

The lack of privacy law in India is a major reason university administration acts according to their whims and fancies.The lack of privacy law in India is a major reason university administration acts according to their whims and fancies.

Sheena Sachdeva | March 28, 2023 | 03:17 PM IST

NEW DELHI: In July 2022, Arun Sharma (name changed on request), a PhD scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, sought information on the institute’s collection of biometric data of students under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In October, IIT Bombay responded saying: “Biometric fingerprint data is collected for some students and transferred to their identity cards; the encrypted data is also temporarily stored in a standalone server as a backup.”

Since March 2020, the institute has been scanning the entry and exit of students at the main gate of IIT Bombay through barcodes of student ID cards. Recently, it installed CCTV cameras in most hostel corridors and integrated ID cards with the hostel mess. A section of students argue it is a violation of their right to privacy. “It’s clear surveillance through these integrations and tracking of students’ movements within the campus,” said Sharma.

With no policy protecting the rights and privacies of individual citizens against the collection and misuse of their data, there is growing concern in some parts of the student community about the tracking of their activities by universities. The opposition to surveillance extends also to resistance to closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring in universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

The increased surveillance has also come hand-in-hand with greater restrictions on protests and even communication. Several universities restrict access to the internet and different websites on campus; others, like JNU, shut down the internet to stall or scuttle student protests.

CCTV camera, faculty exempted

Many universities have CCTV cameras on campus but having them in classrooms and hostels bothers students. “CCTV in the classroom controls students’ every action, making them cautious. Students might not know who is looking at them but there is a record,” stated Sharma. Furthermore, for students, hostels are the only private place where they can be themselves. “With CCTV, someone is watching them constantly. It’s a violation of their right to privacy,” he added. IIT Bombay campus already had CCTV cameras at the hostel entry and exit gates; now, they have been installed in corridors
as well.

The faculty, however, is not subjected to this type of monitoring and are exempt from biometric scanning, the RTI response said. “If the faculty have no biometric, then why are students asked?” said Sharma. “If there is violation of data privacy for faculty, it is for students as well.”

In universities like JNU, with strong student unions, efforts to install CCTV cameras have failed many times. “In 2017, there was a huge movement against surveillance on the campus. Despite the administration’s efforts, students didn’t allow the installation of CCTV cameras. Even now, the administration is trying to put CCTVs in our hostels, but we haven’t allowed it so far,” said Geeta Kumari, former president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU).

Anushka-Jain- Internet-Freedom- Foundation-featured-imageAnushka Jain, Policy Counsel-Surveillance and Transparency, Internet Freedom Foundation

Internet access

Increased surveillance has come in tandem with stiffer restrictions on students.

Some universities, students are given little access to the internet. For instance, a private university in Bengaluru, Karnataka, is so restrictive, it is called a “mini China” by students. Undergraduate and postgraduate students are not given access to any entertainment or research websites other than LinkedIn, a business networking platform, on campus. “Even the research websites are not readily accessible. Also, to access wi-fi, students must get their laptops configured through the IT department where most websites are banned,” said Yash Raj, a final year master’s student.

Similar to IIT Bombay, faculty are exempted from such practices. “Faculty have access to the internet and websites on their phones and laptops. But for us, it’s not even accessible on phones,” added Raj.

Students have protested against this policy many times but with no redress. “While students have raised concerns against lack of internet access, the administration has always [said] that it is done because there are many students on campus whose responsibility is borne by the university,”
stated Raj.

Some campuses impose restrictions during student protests. During a screening of a BBC documentary on the prime minister on the JNU campus, the administration imposed a three-hour power and internet cut. “Earlier, it never happened, but in the last few years, there have been rampant power cuts and low internet access,” said Kumari, adding that it is “now a common practice” during student events and protests.

In 2020, Christ University students protested on Twitter against online exams organised during the Covid-related lockdown. But all tweets were deleted after a few hours. Since then, students have been terrified to come on camera, even to give interviews. “Many students covered their faces while giving interviews. A few students received emails specifying that they won’t be promoted if they gave any interview,” said a student, asking not to be named. Christ University did not respond to questions emailed to them. If they do, the online version of this story will be updated to include their comments.

Kumari said that the effectiveness of surveillance depends on where the university is located. She also said that if students protest against the government in any university, they are targeted.

Student personal data

Sharma in his RTI also asked whether students can delete their personal data stored in campus servers and whether IIT Bombay has informed the students about this. The institute responded saying the students can delete but gave no response to the second question.

Now IIT Bombay has also linked the student ID card to Aadhar Card, although that linking is not compulsory. “New students are asked to give their Aadhar cards,” said Sharma. It’s not just campus surveillance but also linked with other kinds of data.

Further, even for internet access, the institute provides a personalised account for every student with a user id password. “While this personalisation practice started 2019-20 onwards, it’s more of tracking student’s search on the internet,” said another student from IIT Bombay, who didn’t want to be named.

Lack of regulations

Sharma has constantly been pushing the IIT Bombay administration to formally communicate the data clauses to all students and ensure a transparent mechanism for collection
and usage.

He added that the lack of privacy law in India is a major reason university administration acts according to their whims and fancies. A data protection bill framing norms and guidelines on the personal data security of Indians is pending in parliament.

“As there is no regulation in terms of CCTV surveillance in India, it is difficult for universities to come up with such regulations on their own,” said Anushka Jain, policy counsel- surveillance and transparency, Internet Freedom Foundation, a policy think-tank. While it’s difficult to take consent of every individual who comes under the gaze of CCTV cameras, universities must have proper signage in areas where CCTVs are, along with ensuring that the data from the CCTVs are not misused, and footage are deleted in a timely manner, explained Jain.

She suggested that guidelines be drafted to set the terms of the collection or deletion of data collected through CCTVs or biometrics, along with thresholds for each process, while ensuring that misuse doesn’t happen. “There is a need for the ministry of education to take action on drafting guidelines for CCTV cameras and data security of students across campuses,” she said.

Other campuses

However, all students do not harbour the same concern for privacy. Economics student at Lovely Professional University, Pratyush Pattnaik said “CCTV cameras give a sense of security”. LPU has a tracking system and students use their ID cards for entry and exit and fingerprint impressions at hostel gates. “This is done to ensure students don’t sneak into other’s hostels,” said Pattnaik. The same cards are used in the library and hostel mess.

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