Nov 10, 2014 · 1 minute

It was revealed last week that Harvard monitored the attendance of some 2,000 students by taking a picture of the seating arrangement in 10 lecture halls every minute. The images are said to have been destroyed, but the data gleaned from them was used in research presented during a conference at the college earlier this year. Students whose images were captured as part of the research will be informed, "using enrollment data," of their unwitting involvement.

This episode isn't as alarming as it could have been. Harvard doesn't seem to have used facial recognition software to identify the students who appeared in its images, and if it deleted all of the photographs after any useful information was taken from them, their subjects don't have to worry about how the college might use them in the future. That doesn't mean that the college's decision to monitor thousands of students without their permission isn't worrisome, however.

Much has been made in the last year of the government's surveillance efforts, whether it's the FBI's Next Generation Identification system or the NSA's global dragnets. The intelligence community is finally being held accountable for its actions, and the government's attempts to create global surveillance systems from which it's almost impossible to escape are being revealed. But that doesn't mean the government is the only entity capable of surveillance.

Private entities can also spy on people. Most of the time that manifests itself as digital tracking systems gathering information about consumers to please advertisers, as Pando has written about countless times over the last year-and-a-half. But that doesn't mean Surveillance Valley is the only place where groups can spy on people. Harvard can do it. The grocery store down the street can do it. Essentially anyone with a few cameras and computers can conduct surveillance.

So even though this episode wasn't as bad as it could have been, it should serve as a reminder of just how little we can do to avoid both public and private surveillance. Cameras are everywhere, and there are enough people who want to gather information from them that they're probably not all being used in the ways we expect.

[Image via loicdupasquier, Flickr]