Monitoring Tufts’ Surveillance State

Editors Note: A previous form of this article stated multiple students felt as if TUPD was at the FIRST center more often than other places on campus. The article has been corrected to indicate this was the experience of one student. The Observer apologizes for this mistake.

Tufts University has used surveillance since its founding. In 1852, it started with security officers and police and has since been expanded with hundreds of security cameras, automated parking enforcement, and the monitoring of campus internet use. Some students constantly feel watched and believe security is valued over student privacy. An anonymous junior said, “It’s almost impossible to function at the university without being surveilled in some capacity.”

Surveillance has historically been used to oppress and criminalize marginalized communities. Often, this is done in the name of public safety. Surveillance methods are intertwined with the systemic racism of the criminal justice system. Lee Edelman, a professor of literature and film, said, “The issue of surveillance is always linked to this specter of crime and to the possibility of protection against crime.” 

Cameras on Campus

Security cameras constantly record community members as they walk through entryways, stairwells, and outdoor spaces at Tufts. In 2019, the Tufts Observer reported that the Tufts University Police Department had access to footage from hundreds of cameras after the university expanded its surveillance system over the previous five years.

This September, the Tufts Daily reported that Tufts had increased the number of cameras on campus again, this time installing additional parking cameras in anticipation of the Green Line extension. Parking cameras were first implemented at Tufts in 2010 and enforce Tufts’ parking rules by automatically reading cars’ license plates.

Cameras increase Tufts University Police Department’s  reach at the cost of privacy. Second-year dual degree student Ed Hans said, “We know that TUPD has access to all the cameras that are in the dorm buildings, and I would assume they also have access to the ones surveilling where people park. It just gives them more eyes.”

In a written statement to the Observer, Tufts’ Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins wrote, “TUPD can request access [to parking cameras] when necessary for public safety reasons.”

Tufts’ video surveillance policy dictates how TUPD and other departments can use security camera footage. The purpose of the policy is to balance public safety with concerns for privacy. According to the policy, most video footage can be used for “official university and law enforcement purposes,” and “mobile or hidden” cameras can be used in criminal and non-criminal investigations. Parking cameras take photos, not videos, and are not subject to the video surveillance policy.

Whenever security cameras are utilized, the people monitoring them unavoidably view the footage with biases, which may affect who is considered a potential threat to campus security. PhD candidate Nick Rabb, who co-teaches a new class at Tufts called “Data and Power: Deconstructing Surveillance,” said, “Are the white male students going to be the ones who are harmed? Probably not. It’s going to be students of color… They’ll probably have this system used against them.”

Postdoctoral researcher Desen Ozkan, who co-teaches “Data and Power” with Rabb, said institutions often implement additional surveillance measures when there is a perception of danger but that these policies should be re-evaluated as needs evolve. Ozkan said, “Those old surveillance measures [such as cameras] need to be checked.”

Police Presence

TUPD uses many methods beyond security cameras to monitor students, investigate alleged offenses, and enforce order. These surveillance methods include physically watching students, collecting data about who swipes their ID when, and keeping track of opened doors.

Police cars often drive around campus, and some students feel TUPD focuses on some areas on campus more than others. An anonymous junior felt they have seen TUPD outside the FIRST center more often while they were there. They explained how this feels dangerous to them for students at the FIRST Center since FIRST supports a demographic which is primarily Black and Brown as well as undocumented students. They shared their frustrations with the hierarchy of power on campus as well, saying, “If you have a problem with TUPD, where do you go [to hold them accountable]?” 

TUPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Edelman reflected on how Tufts uses surveillance to deter crime and keep rankings high to encourage more students to apply. He stated that Tufts is a non-profit “dedicated to attempting to make its educational resources as available as possible to persons from all sorts of backgrounds, including disadvantaged backgrounds,” and thus, having students who can pay full tuition helps those who cannot and low crime rates encourage these students to enroll.

Edelman also spoke to the point of Black students being unfairly racially profiled. He said, “To be Black is always to be already under surveillance. It’s to have your body always register under the rubric of threat wherever you go, and to be suspect of criminality.” It is not a coincidence that Hans believes universities like Tufts have prison-like structures of enforcing power and maintaining order. Hans said that with prisons and universities, there are “a lot of similarities in how you have to control a population.”

Rabb said university administrations often see students through a “surveilling gaze.” According to Rabb, “One of the things that surveillance does to you is that it wants to categorize you and dehumanize you. Then, power can be exerted on you more easily.”

Hans is uncomfortable with the TUPD presence on both Boston and Medford campuses. At the SMFA, TUPD checks the identity of everyone as they enter the building. Hans said, “They have a cop right at the entrance, [and] you can’t get in without scanning your card. You can’t just come in off the street and go to the gallery, or eat the food, or go to the art store.”

In Medford, Hans often notices TUPD driving around. He said, “I’ll just be sitting somewhere or walking, and [TUPD] will stop the car right next to me or down the street. They’ll never get out of the car… I think they’re just trying to intimidate you by stopping.”

When Hans and a group of friends wheat-pasted signs—sticking them on walls with a flour paste—with nonsense words and phrases on the Medford campus last fall, they didn’t expect the university to be able to identify them. Hans received an email shortly after the incident asking them to meet with TUPD officers. At the meeting, Hans said, “They showed me the footage of when I entered buildings and scanned my card. They have cameras on both the outside and the [inside] of the entrances… [TUPD told me] that’s how they knew it was me because I had used my card to swipe into where I lived at the time.” No other students that Hans was with were identified, presumably because they did not use their IDs. 

Bao Lu, a former Tufts student, reflected on an experience with surveillance on campus. In a written statement to the Observer, he said, “We went through the back door [of Tilton Hall] that’s usually kept locked, but I guess we didn’t close it all the way. While we were sitting and chatting, TUPD pulled up with a car.” He continued to talk about how the TUPD officer interrogated them about what they were up to and if they opened the door. He recalled that the TUPD officer “mentioned that the alarm for Tilton was going off because of the door and they knew at their headquarters monitoring center” that the door was left open. 

Surveilling Student Activists

Surveillance affects everybody at Tufts, but not all students are monitored equally. Some student activists say they are the targets of increased surveillance. A Students for Justice in Palestine member, who wishes to stay anonymous, said Tufts SJP is monitored on campus by other students and faculty. They stressed that it wasn’t necessarily Tufts who surveilled them, but they felt Tufts does not side with them when they are being harassed.                                                                               

Tufts SJP has also been made aware of surveillance by the FBI. At a meeting in September, the Office of Equal Opportunity notified Tufts SJP members that the FBI had investigated their support of the Mapping Project. The Mapping Project is a controversial project by a “multi-generational collective of activists and organizers” that has been criticized by some as antisemitic. Tufts SJP was not involved in its creation, and Tufts SJP members said OEO’s own investigation concluded that Tufts SJP did not violate any Tufts non-discrimination rules. Tufts SJP said in a written statement to the Observer, “The FBI has been a longstanding force of surveillance and repression of social movements which they view as ‘extremist,’ from the Black liberation movement to the farm workers movement to the Palestinian liberation movement.”

Collins wrote, “Other than what has been reported in the media, the university has no information [referencing] the FBI and the Mapping Project.”

Other activist groups at Tufts have faced heightened levels of TUPD surveillance. When Rabb was involved in organizing a protest last year against Raytheon, a military contractor recruiting Tufts students for jobs, Raytheon recruiters attempted to call TUPD on activists who disrupted the event. However, TUPD was already outside with the protesters.

When Rabb talked with a TUPD officer at the protest, he said the officer attempted to ask questions to find out more about the protest, starting with broad questions and getting more specific. Rabb said that when TUPD does this, “They want you to give them details about your organizing. This is something that regular police officers are trained to do.”

Rabb said, “[The administration] absolutely [has] an incentive to maintain order, hold onto their power, and not be challenged by student organizations who want to reshape the way the university works.”

Internet Surveillance: It’s Too Late

Concerns about surveillance at Tufts aren’t limited to the physical campus. Tufts students feel as though campus Wi-Fi and email addresses are not secure. Pham said that it is hard to know what is private and what is public when Tufts is not transparent about its level of surveillance, especially digitally.

For example, junior Quinn Hoerner was trying to find a movie for a class that was not available on any streaming site they had access to. They downloaded the movie illegally on Tufts Wi-Fi, which Tufts saw and reprimanded them for. Hoerner said, “A week later, I got this email saying [I] violated the school’s use of Wi-Fi.” As a result, they had to write an essay reflecting on their actions and wrongdoings. 

Other students worry about their university email accounts being monitored. In 2016, the Observer reported that members of Tufts Labor Coalition and Tufts SJP felt as though the administration knew more about their protests than was publicly available. To protect their privacy, TLC began to use secure communications systems, forgoing Tufts WiFi and university emails. 

Collins said that while Tufts Wi-Fi does “create records of which Wi-Fi Access Point a device connects to,” the data collected “does not include the content of communications (emails sent or received, web page content, etc.) as this information is almost universally encrypted and not viewable by anyone at Tufts.”

An anonymous student organizer often uses personal emails for organizing work to avoid any possibility of the university intercepting information. They said, “We live in an age of surveillance, and there’s a culture of having to assume that you don’t have a right to privacy.” 

When asked how students can protect themselves from digital surveillance, Professor Ming Chow, who teaches cybersecurity classes, had one overarching message: “It’s too late.”

Chow said in a written statement to the Observer, “Even if you are so careful with your information, someone dropped the ball and lost it.” Chow personally has access to a ProctorU data dump from 2020. The data includes full names, home addresses, and phone numbers of Tufts students who used the online proctoring service. 

When asked how Tufts keeps students’ private information safe when stored in third-party sources, Collins said, “[Tufts Technology Services] negotiates data protection requirements into the contracts that govern the vendor’s storage and use of Tufts data.”

Resistance efforts

Surveillance efforts can be pervasive and overwhelming, but students are taking steps to resist and push back against policies and practices that disregard their privacy.

Ozkan said resisting surveillance could mean “refusing to use a Tufts email, or not walking into a [parking] garage, or wearing hats.” She said, “Or is it a bigger thing, a protest or some sort of organized collective action?”

Rabb said disrupting TUPD in small ways can be considered resistance. He said, “If TUPD comes up to you and asks you a question, and you’re like, ‘Sorry, I’m on my way to class’—that’s an act of resistance.”

Rabb also said many students are currently unaware of just how far-reaching surveillance at Tufts is. He said a “knowledge building, awareness building campaign would be a huge step” in terms of combatting surveillance policies at the university.   

Some students are pushing the university to re-evaluate the way it approaches surveillance. Tufts SJP said in a statement to the Observer, “We are disheartened to see that Tufts has continued to increase the presence of security cameras across campus, and we hope that the Tufts community will instead put their faith in community care and trust and continue to build alternatives outside of policing, surveillance, and incarceration.”