City University of New York Students Collect 27,000 Signatures Against Invasive Surveillance Policy

Students at CUNY will be required to submit to invasive home, biometric, and personal device surveillance under the institution’s pending deals with remote proctoring providers. Student governments at multiple campuses are organizing to halt the agreement.

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Students at the City University of New York (CUNY), a public institution that serves many low income and BIPOC students, are organizing to stop what they say is an “atrocious” privacy violation. The students have collected over 27,000 signatures via a change.org petition that calls on their chancellor to halt controversial deals with Proctortrack and Respondus, as well as current use of Proctorio, the preferred partner of university-affiliated McGraw Hill Publishing.

These softwares require that students grant an unwarranted and rights-violating level of access to their personal devices, homes, and biometric information. The spyware-like options under consideration could require students to submit to facial recognition; alter privacy-related settings on a student’s computer; monitor eye movements via webcam and save those recordings in a database; require the student film their entire room multiple times during a test; manage all apps, extensions, and themes on a student’s personal computer; read and change the data on a student’s web browser; and more.

The state of New York voted in July to pause for two years any implementation of facial recognition technology in schools, but the legislation has not yet been signed and does not apply to institutions of higher education.

“It’s a violation of privacy at its highest level,” said Eliel Mizrahi (he/him), a student at CUNY Brooklyn college. “I feel extremely uncomfortable with the fact that the school has complete access to my home and computer. What happened to basic human rights and values?”

“Student privacy and safety has always been a primary concern of the University Student Senate as we transitioned to distance learning, and our students deserve better,” said Timothy Hunter, CUNY University Student Senate chairperson. “We are calling on all the CUNY campuses to pledge that they will ensure the privacy of our students. Students have gone through so much this year alone, let’s not make this any harder on them by attempting to enforce unfair policies that will disproportionately harm our students who do not have access to the necessary resources.”

“We must do everything we can to prevent this generation of young people from entering a world where an Orwellian level of surveillance is normalized,” said Lia Holland (she/her), an activist with digital rights group Fight for the Future. “Privacy is a human right under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and students should never have to give up their privacy in order to receive an education. The education-industrial complex absolutely does not need this level of access to student’s personal lives and devices, but because more data on students is in the best interest of their shareholders, they’re requiring it anyway.”

“I don’t think this is about student integrity and caution. Professors barely know how to use the technology in front of them at the moment,” said Jessica Rosario, who attends CUNY’s JohnJay College. “There are so many ways in which students’ voices have been disregarded (responses from financial aid, professors, departments, support services, opportunity programs). Why is there agency and urgency around this? Why do they want to use MONEY FROM STUDENTS to fund this program? I don’t support it because it’s a clear violation of privacy to control the devices of students. The technology will be used to monitor us, not our work.”

CUNY officials have not acknowledged or addressed the concerns of students. They have also not replied to Fight for the Future’s request for comment. Student organizers are available for comment at info@bcstudentgov.org.

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