Harvard Research Project Took Secret Photos of Students

Harvard University approved a research project on class attendance that resulted in students and professors being photographed in lecture halls without their knowledge.

Teachers were informed after the fact that a camera was installed in their classrooms and photographs taken in order to gather data on attendance, according to the university. The protocol for the study, which has drawn criticism as faculty members have been made aware of the secret photos, was approved by Harvard’s Institutional Review Board, the university said.

“Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean it should be,” Harry Lewis, a computer sciences professor, said at a faculty meeting this week, according to a blog posting. “And if you watch people electronically and don’t tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards.”

Harvard confronted controversy over privacy last year after the university searched the e-mails of resident deans. The search was made because of concerns that a confidential communication about a cheating scandal implicating dozens of students was forwarded to the student newspaper.

Peter Bol, a professor and vice provost who oversaw the attendance research project earlier this year, captured the images anonymously and later destroyed them, according to Harvard. He has spoken with every faculty member involved except two and is committed to informing every student whose image may have been captured, Michael Rutter, a university spokesman, said in a statement.

The research project was conducted in 10 lecture halls and involved about 2,000 students, the Boston Globe reported yesterday.

Counting Seats

Bol told faculty at a Nov. 4 meeting that the protocol was to install a camera that snapped an image of the audience in a lecture hall every minute, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. He said the images were processed through a program that counted whether seats were empty or filled and that quantities were counted for each lecture.

“I do understand the concern with faculty control, but ultimately course heads did have control over the data on students in their classes,” he said in his prepared remarks. “Yet this has certainly raised questions about studies involving students that might not be set up to avoid identifying students.”

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