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Surveillance at St. Olaf, revisited

Understanding the college’s surveillance practices

St. Olaf College’s policy on the acceptable use of technology states that “users should not have any expectation of privacy when using college resources for personal use.” While the policy is mostly aimed at outlining what is acceptable use of the College’s resources, it also raises some concerns about the level of surveillance that St. Olaf conducts on its students’ online activity.

St. Olaf’s IT department can see all the traffic that passes through the college’s networks, meaning they have visibility over which websites students visit and how long they spend on each website — even if those websites are accessed through the student’s personal device. However, with the rise of encrypted internet traffic, the college can only see the domain names of those websites, not the specific pages they visit. This limitation restricts the College from monitoring anything beyond the domain names visited. Moreover, tracking users on St. Olaf’s guest network is even harder as the devices aren’t associated with specific login credentials.

St. Olaf provides each student and faculty member with a Google account that is managed by the IT department, allowing them to access most, if not all, of the information associated with those accounts. This includes access to Google Drive files, emails, calendar events, and the search history associated with that account. While this level of access can be useful for IT troubleshooting and data backup, it raises questions about the privacy and security of personal information stored or shared through these accounts. 

Moodle, an online learning management system, is used to manage course materials, assignments, discussions, and grades. Moodle tracks every click and interaction students have with the system, creating a comprehensive log of their activity. This log can be used by faculty to monitor student engagement, provide feedback, or detect cheating. Previous reporting by The Olaf Messenger revealed that there have been instances where an Honor Code violation investigation was launched after a student got caught accessing Moodle files during a test.

St. Olaf also physically monitors students with security cameras in various locations on campus, including academic buildings, residence hall entrances, and outdoor areas. However, very limited information is available on who monitors these cameras or how they’re being used. Additionally, the number of security cameras, their locations, quality of the footage, and the college’s policies for retention and access are not publicly disclosed. Moreover, there are two publicly accessible cameras placed on St. Olaf Avenue and the Quad, which raise concerns about the privacy of students on campus.

The issue of surveillance at St. Olaf remains complex and ever changing, requiring ongoing scrutiny and dialogue. While some changes have been made to the college’s policies and practices, there are still gaps and uncertainties that need to be addressed. Students, faculty, and staff must be aware of their rights and responsibilities regarding privacy and security and engage in open and constructive conversations with the administration about the ethical and legal implications of surveillance.

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