UTPD’s warrantless access to students’ whereabouts crosses the line

Charlotte McClure and Ali Breland

In the wake of the recent outcry surrounding the NSA’s constitutionally questionable surveillance activities, UTPD revealed its own policy of ID surveillance. According to UTPD spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon, UT Information Technology Services logs whenever a student or staff member swipes their UT ID to enter ID-protected on-campus buildings such as residence halls  and research science buildings.  That information is stored and accessible to UTPD without a warrant for 30 days. This system has been put into practice on numerous occasions, “for life-safety events and criminal investigations,” according to UTPD spokeswoman Cynthia Posey.

Because of current legal precedent, UTPD’s access to the data does not require a warrant, said Robert Chesney, associate dean for academic affairs of the UT Law School. The problem is, legal concerns don’t always address ethical ones. Just because a policy falls in line with the law doesn’t mean it is necessarily ethical or just. While UTPD’s prying comes nowhere close to the appalling transgressions of the NSA’s civil liberties breach, UTPD’s actions still raise ethical questions.

UT students and faculty have an inherent right to privacy, as do all citizens. It is a necessary, deserved privilege that maintains the people’s autonomy from the government, a necessary and just feature of all free societies. When an individual’s privacy jeopardizes the safety of other students and staff members on campus, then UTPD has a strong case for monitoring that person’s whereabouts. Warranted monitoring of such individuals, provided reasonable suspicion, is an ethical and just system that allows for regulation and oversight. The unregulated violation of privacy rights, however, calls for public scrutiny, even if it is technically legal.

While ID tracking is no doubt useful for preserving campus safety, UT philosophy professor Mark Sainsbury commented on the startling lack of oversight. 

“If there was a theft, with some indication of when it occurred, it seems reasonable to me that the police should be able to know who was in the building during that time,” Sainsbury said. “On the other hand, one might get a little worried if the University used the information to find out which students were participating in a meeting designed to organize a demonstration against some University policy.” 

Without policy oversight, UT student and faculty rights to privacy are jeopardized.

In a recent article in the Texan, Chesney said, “We’re talking about the information that’s being gathered because you were using UT-issued IDs to access UT property with permission from UT.” 

Chesney’s comments address the policy’s legality but fail to justify it ethically. UT's policy forces students to accept the fact that attending a world-class institution like UT may require the relinquishing of a basic right, privacy. This is a choice we as students should refuse to make. It is reprehensible and unethical. The right to education should not be mutually exclusive with the right to privacy.

Posey has stated that the University is reviewing these policies and considering requiring a subpoena to access the building access data. It would be beneficial for the University to choose to take that responsible and ethical step.

Organizations like the NSA and UTPD exist for our protection. When their actions fall outside the bounds of legality, outrage and reform undoubtedly follow. But when legal precedent and ethics don’t quite align, critical conversation and pointed questions must work to close the gap. 

Breland is a Plan II and philosophy senior from Houston. Follow Breland on Twitter @alibreland. McClure is a returning Plan II student who will resume her studies in the spring.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article stated that law professor Robert Chesney argued in favor of UTPD's ID surveillance policy. Changes have been made to clarify that Chesney expressed no opinion to the columnist regarding UTPD's policy.