Inside the campus privacy battle over smart building sensors

Inside the campus privacy battle over smart building sensors

Inside the campus privacy battle over smart building sensors

Futuristic hall features included carbon dioxide sensors that automatically bring in fresh air, a rain garden, a courtyard for robots and drones, and experimental super-sensing devices called Mites. Mounted at more than 300 locations in the building, these switch-sized devices can measure 12 types of data, including motion and sound. Dust mites have been embedded in hallway walls and ceilings, in conference rooms and in private offices, all as part of a smart building research project led by CMU Professor Yuvraj Agarwal and PhD student Sudershan Boovaraghavan and including another teacher, Chris Harrison.

“The overall goal of this project,” Agarwal explained at an April 2021 public meeting for students and faculty, is to “build a safe, secure, and easy-to-use IoT (Internet of Things) infrastructure.” , referring to a network of physical objects equipped with sensors such as smart bulbs, thermostats and televisions that can connect to the Internet and share information wirelessly.

Not everyone was happy to find the building full of dust mites. Some members of the ministry felt that the project violated their privacy rather than protecting it. In particular, students and professors whose research focused more on the social impacts of technology felt that the device’s microphone, infrared sensor, thermometer, and six other sensors, which together could at least detect when a space was occupied, would subject them to experimental surveillance. without their consent.

“It’s not okay to install them by default,” says David Widder, a final-year doctoral student in software engineering who has become one of the most vocal voices in the department against mites. “I don’t want to live in a world where an employer installing networked sensors in your office without asking you first is a model for other organizations to follow.”

Students walk past the Walk to the Sky monument on the Carnegie Mellon campus.


All tech users face similar questions about how and where to draw a personal line when it comes to privacy. But outside our own homes (and sometimes within them), we increasingly lack autonomy over these decisions. Instead, our privacy is determined by the choices of the people around us. Walking into a friend’s house, a retail store, or just a public street exposes us to many different types of surveillance over which we have little control.

Against a backdrop of burgeoning workplace surveillance, prolific data collection, rising cybersecurity risks, growing concerns about privacy and smart technologies, and tense power dynamics around the freedom of expression in academic institutions, Mites has become a lightning rod within the Institute for Software Research.

Voices on both sides of the issue were aware that Project Mites could have an impact far beyond TCS Hall. After all, Carnegie Mellon is a leading science, technology and engineering research university, and how it handles that research may influence how sensors are deployed elsewhere. “When we do something, companies… (and) other universities listen,” says Widder.

Indeed, the Mites researchers hoped the process they followed “could actually be a model for smaller universities” looking to do similar research, says Agarwal, an associate professor of computer science who developed and tested the learning. automatic for IoT devices. for a decade.


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