Big Brother comes to campus

December 2, 2013

Crystal Stella Becerril looks at a new wave of surveillance systems, in an article written for the Herald newspaper at Harold Washington College.

WHAT DO the new biometrics payroll system at the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), the Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) new fare-collection system Ventra, and the National Security Agency (NSA) program X-Keyscore have in common?

They are the latest examples of ways in which government agencies and private corporations are increasingly using technology to spy on individuals and even entire populations.

As a result of such programs, we are now living in a time of unprecedented--not to mention unconstitutional--invasions of privacy and the wholesale demolition of our civil rights.

At City Colleges, CCCWorks, the biometrics Time & Attendance system, which functions by scanning an employee's fingertip and identifying its key characteristics, has caused a faculty-wide discussion about the ethics of such a program, and rightfully so. The system, which was introduced this September for administrators and non-union staff, is scheduled to roll out for all faculty members this coming spring semester and should warrant a broader discussion among the student body, not just the faculty.

One Chicago's new Ventra transit fare machines
One Chicago's new Ventra transit fare machines (Steven Vance)

In an October 10 letter to the Faculty Council regarding the Time & Attendance system, Vice Chancellor Laurent Pernot stated, "Estimates are that City Colleges will save...more than $1 million annually once Time & Attendance is fully implemented," and "[B]eyond the convenience and operation and financial benefits...Time & Attendance is indeed about transparency and accountability."

In his letter, Pernot also noted that the Inspector General found "more than a dozen cases in which staff, full-time faculty, lecturers or educators... falsified time and attendance reports in some way."

If indeed it is the case that CCC would save upwards of $1 million by going digital, wouldn't swipe cards or PINs (personal identification numbers) suffice in replacing the cumbersome and outdated pen-and-paper process? My guess is that they would.

So then the question is: Do a dozen cases of "falsified time and attendance reports" among hundreds of CCC employees really justify such invasive and insulting measures? Measures that essentially say to faculty and staff "you are hereby considered guilty of fraud until you prove your innocence via a fingerprint scan" and have the potential to create an environment of distrust and suspicion among faculty, administration and student body, thereby obscuring the mission of the school and distorting the real reason why faculty members become educators in the first place: because they love to teach?

The answer is no.

While we're at it, they should consider paying their staff and faculty a living wage. I have a feeling that would go a long way in curbing the falsification of time and attendance reports.

IT'S CLEAR that these measure are neither necessary nor justified. Biometrics isn't about preventing fraud or saving City Colleges money, but about the surveillance of CCC employees. Likewise, CCC's planned "reinvention" initiative isn't about improving student experience or retention, but about turning City Colleges into jobs-training centers to meet the needs of the corporations that call Chicago home.

Both of these schemes are part of a larger and more disquieting trend of privatizing and corporatizing public institutions, especially public education.

Under the guise of "corporate partnerships," they divert public dollars to benefit private entities and individuals, while simultaneously turning public higher-education institutions into jobs-training centers whose sole purpose is to churn out "job ready" individuals--individuals who have essentially paid for their right to be exploited by the private corporations CCC has, and will continue to, partner with.

Trish Kahle, a University of Chicago PhD candidate in labor history, summarizes this trend perfectly:

When politicians talk about focusing on job readiness, they aren't talking about an enriching education with diverse subject matter, time to engage in critical thinking, or participation in political, cultural and intellectual life outside the classroom in a campus setting. They're talking about skills-based classes that provide the training and certification that used to be provided on the job, offloading the costs of worker training from corporations and putting it on the backs of students, and through the creation of a student debt crisis, on the back of the working class as a whole.

In the same vein, when CCC talks about using biometrics as a means of "transparency and accountability" what they're really talking about is monitoring faculty and staff.

THIS IS a small and local example of what is a widespread agenda of hyper-surveillance--an agenda that in the age of neoliberalism has allowed technological advances to be used to infiltrate nearly every aspect of our lives.

Take, for example, the CTA's new fare-collection system, Ventra. Not only are its claims of convenience and ease quite the opposite, but by forcing people to register their fare cards in order to avoid service fees and higher fares, Ventra and CTA will now be able to effectively collect meta-data from hundreds of thousands of commuters.

This is disconcerting because this type of meta-data collection allows companies like Ventra--which, incidentally, happens to be owned and operated by multinational defense contractor Cubic Corp.--to provide government agencies and private corporations the time-stamps and travel patterns of individual passengers. Such an unprecedented exchange of information between public and private entities about specific individuals has the potential to open the door to other, more invasive "Big Brother" surveillance programs.

This includes programs like those revealed earlier this year by NSA whistleblower and hero Edward Snowden with the help of journalist Glenn Greenwald. The top-secret government documents leaked by Snowden and Greenwald reveal a terrifying reality--one of insidious and pervasive mass-spying that is both unprecedented and unconstitutional.

PRISM and X-Keyscore, programs that collect meta-data, including phone records and Internet activity on a mass-scale, allow the NSA to spy on individuals and entire sections of the population pre-emptively, without warrants or probable cause, meaning that they are in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment, which was established to guarantee freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Clearly this is a serious problem that affects every single one of us, and thus, should be seen as a key issue for this generation to resist and combat.

This is not to suggest that the new biometrics Time & Attendance program, CCCWorks, or CTA's new Ventra system are on par with the NSA's mass-spying programs like PRISM and X-Keyscore. However, it is to say that they are smaller, local examples of what is an alarming trend of hyper-surveillance and monitoring. A trend of policies and programs that clearly violate our civil rights and threaten to become our new way of life if we don't do something about it.

For these very reasons, I stand with all staff and faculty members at any and all City Colleges of Chicago who oppose this invasive and insulting biometrics system, and I urge all City Colleges students to become aware and informed about these issues so that we may collectively engage with these issues and be able to influence the direction of the institutions created to serve us.

Further Reading

From the archives