In the campus privacy battle over modern building sensors


Future features of the hall include direct-intake carbon dioxide sensors, a rain garden, a courtyard of robots and drones, and experimental super-sensing devices called Mits. Installed in more than 300 locations throughout the building, these light switch-sized devices measure 12 types of data, including motion and sound. As part of a research project on smart buildings by CMU professor Yuvraj Agarwal and PhD student Sudershan Bhuvargavan and fellow professor Chris Harrison, termites were installed on the walls and ceilings of hallways, conference rooms and private offices.

“The overall goal of this project,” Agawal explained at a town hall meeting for students and faculty in April 2021, “is to build an IoT that is safe, secure, and easy to use.” [Internet of Things] infrastructure,” referring to a network of sensor-equipped physical objects such as smart light bulbs, thermostats, and TVs that can connect to the Internet and share data wirelessly.

Not everyone was happy as the building was full of mites. Some people in the department felt that the project violated rather than protected their privacy. In particular, students and teachers focused on the social impact of technology felt that the device’s microphone, infrared sensor, thermometer, and six other sensors that detect when there is at least a gap together make them susceptible to experimental surveillance. without their consent.

“It’s okay to install these by default,” says David Wider, a final-year doctoral candidate in software engineering who was one of the loudest speakers at the department’s meet. “I don’t want to live in a world where your employer installs network sensors in your office without asking you to be a model for other organizations to follow.”

Students walk through the Walk to the Sky statue on the Carnegie Mellon campus.


All technology users face similar questions about how and where to draw the personal line when it comes to privacy. But outside of our own homes (and sometimes inside) there is a growing lack of autonomy over these decisions. Rather, our privacy is determined by the choices of those around us. Walking into a friend’s house, a retail store, or a public street leaves us open to many forms of surveillance without much control.

With ever-increasing workplace surveillance, mass data collection, increased cybersecurity concerns, increased concerns about privacy and smart technologies, and power dynamics around free speech in academic institutions, Mitt became a lightning rod at the Software Research Institute.

Voices on both sides of the issue recognize that the Mites project could have an impact beyond TCS Hall. After all, Carnegie Mellon is a top research university in science, technology and engineering, and how it handles this research could influence how sensors are deployed elsewhere. When we do something, companies… [and] Other universities will listen,” Wieder says.

Indeed, the MITS researchers were hoping that the same process they went through “could be a blueprint for smaller universities,” said Agarwal, an associate professor of computer science who is developing and testing machine learning for IoT devices. for ten years.


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