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A group of graduate students at Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, which houses the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, objected last week to sensors that administrators put under their desks without telling them. David Luzzi, senior vice provost for research, said in an internal memo that that the sensors—which had already been removed by students and arranged in a large tableau saying “No!”—would be permanently removed due to students’ privacy concerns. Luzzi said that the sensors had been placed initially to gather desk-usage data. David Madigan, provost, said in a separate memo to faculty members, “While our intent was simply to assess overall desk usage—the sensors are not capable of identifying specific individuals—we fully understand the privacy concerns that have been raised. Once your concerns were expressed, we moved quickly to remove the sensors.”

Max Von Hippel, a graduate student of computer science at Northeastern, wrote on Twitter, “The alleged reason for the sensors was to conduct a study on desk usage. Reader, we have assigned desks, and we use a key-card to get into the room, so, they already know how and when we use our desks.” Journalist Cory Doctorow said in his own lengthy Twitter thread that he asked von Hippel what was really going on: “He told me: ‘They are proposing that grad students share desks, taking turns with a scheduling web-app, so administrators can take over some of the space currently used by grad students.’” Doctorow said that based on a transcript of meetings between Luzzi and students, Luzzi said he didn’t need institutional review board approval for human subjects research in this case because Northeastern wasn’t “monitoring people,” but rather “heat sources.” Luzzi also reportedly said that there was no privacy interest in the collected data because “no individual data goes back to the server” and that “we are not doing science here.” (Students promptly wrote this latter remark on a campus window.)

Doctorow said that the sensors were not only invasive from the graduate students’ perspective but also emitted radio frequency noise that interfered with their research. He wrote, “The shitty technology adoption curve is relentless, but you can’t skip a step! Jumping straight to grad students (in a *privacy lab*) was a blunder.”