by Alexa Schwerha
The George Washington University’s president publicly apologized Friday for a fall 2021 surveillance pilot program that tracked students’ and employees’ locations on campus without their consent.
“I write to inform you of a data analytics pilot program that took place on the university campus during the Fall 2021 semester, and to apologize on behalf of the university for the failure to inform you in advance of commencing this project,” Mark S. Wrighton wrote.
The letter addressed the objective of the program, which was to collect data to institute a database that would highlight the use of campus facilities. The data mapped the density of campus spaces that would be used to meet the Safety and Facilities team’s “operational priorities.”
Sponsored by the GW Informational Technology (GWIT), alongside the Division of Safety and Facilities and the Division of Student Affairs, the pilot program used locational data tracked by Wi-Fi access points across the Washington D.C. campus to pinpoint the density of buildings throughout the semester.
The pilot program ran throughout the fall semester, however, the university failed to inform the community of its practices.
“[A]ny data collected and aggregated during the 2021 planning and pilot efforts in connection with this project that has not already been destroyed will be destroyed and no similar efforts will be undertaken until there is policy guidance that is adopted and fully communicated to the university community,” Wrighton stated.
The Division of Student Affairs had tracked student-connected devices to conduct an analysis of when the student population frequents campus buildings to garner a proximate utilization rate.
The data used deciphers to break down the data into aggregated groups, including gender.
Wrighton did note that the program only ran for one semester and concluded in December 2021.
In regard to concerns over potential privacy breaches, Wrighton affirmed that privacy was of “utmost importance” to the pilot.
“GWIT did attach descriptors to the data, so it was not completely anonymized,” Wrighton admitted. “I want to be clear that even though the technical capacity may exist to track individuals across our campus, such a capacity was not utilized nor contemplated in this pilot and no individualized data tracking or movement across our campus was ever shared.”
To quell concerns about on-campus privacy, Wrighton announced that the Provost will convene a policy committee of students, faculty, and staff tasked with establishing a university policy regulating data analytics and consent.
“The university is committed to maintaining the privacy of all personal information,” Wrighton concluded. “The university deeply regrets that this project took place without proper review or safeguards and we will work to make sure that such an incident is not repeated.”
Campus Reform contacted George Washington University for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.
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Alexa Schwerha is a reporter for Campus Reform. She was the Regional Field Coordinator at Leadership Institute for Texas and New Mexico. She graduated Kent State University with a degree in Communication Studies and Political Science. Prior to her work at the Leadership Institute, she worked for the Ohio Republican Party to help elect Republicans across the state during the 2020 election cycle.
Photo “George Washington University” by George Washington University.