Indiscriminate surveillance at MIT
Logging of card access data at CSAIL has no clear benefits
In the Stata Center, the doors to enter the building and then to enter the lab areas are opened by RFID cards (I call them “pox cards”) instead of metal keys. When the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) moved into Stata in 2004, the MIT administration decided, without consulting the personnel of CSAIL, to make the system log which cards are used to open which doors and when.
At first, many of us were incensed about this; I remain so. A committee was launched to study the issue, but it dragged on, petered out, and never made a formal recommendation.
Thanks to Edward Snowden’s heroism, we know that digital systems accumulate massive records about everyone, and these are easily available to the state. Digital technology makes it easy to record events, and standard engineering and business practice is to log all data.
If we don’t want a society in which everyone’s movements and communications are recorded for Big Brother to scrutinize — if we want democracy and journalism to be safe — we need to make systems stop creating dossiers about us. (I’ve written about these general points before in gnu.org/philosophy/surveillance-vs-democracy.html).
MIT’s lock logging is one of these systems, and I felt I should take action once again locally, as well as globally.
When we criticize MIT’s practice of logging people’s movements, the Card Office responds with two arguments. First, they say MIT’s policy for access to these data is very strict.
Perhaps we could trust MIT on this if this were really under MIT’s control, but the USA PATRIOT Act allows State Security forces to collect all of this data at any time. MIT can’t refuse requests for data, or even tell us how often they happen. The NSA, whose unofficial motto is “collect everything,” may collect the all the data regularly, as it does with the major US phone companies.
Second, they assert that logging helps fight crime.
Does it really? Such claims must be put to the test. The NSA claimed that surveilling everyone in the US was vital for preventing terrorism. When it had to give details, it became clear that the supposed benefit did not exist.
MIT has not even tried to tell us what good it has achieved by surveilling people who work in Stata. I decided to ask. I emailed MIT Police Chief John DiFava to ask for information on whatever tangible good the Stata Center lock logging has done: for instance, criminals that have been caught, and/or property recovered, with the help of these logs. I emphasized that I sought no personal information, only aggregate data.
In his response, however, he did not provide the data, instead refusing to even acknowledge my specific requests. His message contained only general platitudes. I would post it, but DiFava didn’t respond when I asked for permission to publish his message.
If these logs are indeed protecting us from crime, surely the MIT Police would be glad to demonstrate just how effective they are. I call on them to show us with real data how much good MIT does for us through the logging of our movements. If they don’t, I think we can guess why.
Copyright 2014 Richard Stallman. Released under Creative Commons BY-ND license 3.0
Dr. Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation and a free software activist, as well as a visiting scientist at CSAIL.