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Your College Is Watching You

Universities are increasingly snooping on their students and staff. From emails to social media to campus whereabouts.

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It monitors email and  social media accounts, uses thousands of surveillance cameras to track behavior and movement, is funded by billions of dollars from the federal government, and has been called " the most authoritarian institution in America".

The National Security Agency? Nope. It's your average college or university.

Earlier this year, when Harvard University  violated school policy by secretly searching deans' email accounts, the world glimpsed the intrusive measures one school took to monitor online activity of its staff. "We needed to act to protect our students,"  said then-dean of Harvard College Evelynn Hammonds, who authorized the search in response to leaked information about a high-profile cheating scandal at the Ivy League institution.

But at schools across the country, administrators use similarly invasive surveillance tools to monitor everything from students' off-campus behavior to their online speech. University lawyers and administrators claim such surveillance programs are necessary to "protect" their stakeholders. But in reality, these actions are often just heavy-handed strategies colleges use to control their public image – at students' expense.

As a former college athlete, I'm all too familiar with this phenomenon. Many athletic departments hire companies like  UDiligence and Varsity Monitor to watch after the social media profiles of their student athletes. The services search for keywords in athletes' profiles and alert coaches or administrators when they are used. Words or phrases like "Benjamins", "Sam Adams", and, bizarrely, "Gazongas" are among those keywords flagged by the monitoring programs.

Although my particular school did not use one of these programs, my team's media relations official kept close tabs on the op-eds I wrote for the student newspaper and other outlets and pulled me aside when he didn't like the direction of one of the pieces. The practice is chilling, yes, but for some students, it can get much worse.

In 2007, Valdosta State University student Hayden Barnes  was expelledwithout due process (pdf) for protesting University President Ronald Zaccari's plan to spend $30m of student fee money on building campus parking garages. Zaccari went to extreme lengths to mute Barnes' criticism: he monitored Barnes' Facebook page, ordered university staff to look into his health, and ultimately had an expulsion note slipped under his dorm room door that identified him as a "clear and present danger" to campus. (In 2012, the Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals held Zaccari personally liable for violating Barnes' legal rights.)

In another brazen exercise of snooping and censorship, St Augustine's College (SAC) in North Carolina  punished student Roman Caple in 2011 for a Facebook post on the college's official page that, according to the school's vice president of student affairs, "jeopardized the integrity of the college". The offending post simply called for fellow students to "come correct, be prepared, and have supporting documents" at a public meeting where campus leaders were scheduled to discuss the school's response to a recent tornado that cut off power to many SAC students.

Lately, tracking student social media has gotten so out of control that Delaware and California have  passed legislation limiting schools' ability to do such monitoring.

But as we know from the Harvard imbroglio, the monitoring of online activity isn't limited to students. Last month, a professor at Johns Hopkins University wrote a blog post critical of the NSA and was  asked to take it down and stop using the NSA logo by one of the school's deans. (The school  later apologized.) And at Occidental College, administrators recently confiscated the computers and cell phones of at least eight faculty members and dozens of staff members allegedly as part of an ongoing investigation by the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) into campus sexual assault procedures. But in an  interview with The Huffington Post, an OCR official said that "OCR did not require Occidental to confiscate faculty members' laptops and cells".

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