Protest against classroom scanners at Lipsius building
On Tuesday a few dozen students and staff from Leiden University protested on the square in front of the Lipsius building against the classroom scanners that have been installed in buildings and lecture halls. They are demanding that the scanners be removed.
The University has been using classroom scanners since 2020. These were installed at building entrances to count students, staff and visitors as they enter the building during the coronavirus pandemic. The scanners have been configured in such a way that no one is visible. However, the demonstrators are worried that the University is unable to guarantee this privacy or will abandon this at a later date. The University has no interest in doing so and only uses the system to count the number of people present in a room. This is necessary because of, among other things, the coronavirus measures and the need to monitor everyone’s health and safety.
During the protest at the Lipsius building one of the organisers, Joris Wiebes, addressed those present through a megaphone. The protest was a way of opening up the discussion with the board of the University, he said. The demonstrators believe that the scanners should not have been installed because in their opinion the cybersecurity is not good. Leiden University weekly Mare reported a few weeks ago that the security of the system was not entirely in order because a limited number of login pages for scanners were outside the University network for a short period of time. No one could log in to the system if they did not have the logins and passwords. This has since been rectified, and the University can guarantee that no images have ever been leaked or visible. Despite this, the scanners make some students feel intimidated and unsafe.
Not a machine
Not only are a number of students angry about the classroom scanners, but a number of staff members were also ‘shocked’ to hear about them, lecturer Andrew Littlejohn from the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FSW) told those present through the megaphone. ‘Leiden University is treating the space where we work and study like a machine that you can optimise. But it isn’t a machine; it’s a community. That’s why our input should be taken seriously.’ The demonstrators cheered and began chanting, ‘Take them down.’
Then Hilde van Meegdenburg, also a lecturer at FSW, addressed the demonstrators. She and 165 other staff members wrote a letter to the Executive Board voicing their concerns about the scanners and requesting more information. The letter has since been answered and the staff been given detailed information about the system.
‘A major point of concern for me is that the system is disproportionate. It can do much more than is strictly necessary,’ she told the demonstrators. What makes this system different from other scanners that are already in many places, she explained, is the analytical software. She therefore thinks the scanners should be removed once the pandemic is over and it is no longer necessary to monitor whether a lecture hall or building is too busy.
The organisers of the protest ended with three demands for the University board. First, they want the scanners to be removed. Second, they want the University to publicly apologise for this ‘disgraceful state of affairs’. Third, they want the University to develop a plan to ‘improve transparency’ and inform students and staff of decisions.
President of the Executive Board, Annetje Ottow, responded to the demonstration at the Lipsius building.
‘Scanners help us stay safe during coronavirus’
‘We understand the concerns about the scanners. Anything privacy-related has alarm bells ringing nowadays, and quite rightly so. We should have been more alert and informed our students and staff sooner about the scanners in our buildings.
It’s good that the students and a few staff members have made their voices heard at Lipsius today. We are an open university where anyone can say what they think of something.
But on behalf of the Executive Board I would also like to put things into perspective. These scanners are people counters and no one is visible or recognisable. They are only used to count students and staff. Our privacy is not at risk.
Coronavirus and the restrictions make this counting is particularly important. We have to distance once again and a maximum number of people are allowed in a lecture hall at any one time. So this is about our health and safety. We do not collect any other information nor do we store anything. No one is recognisable and no data has ever been leaked. The privacy of our students and staff is guaranteed with these scanners.
The advantage of these classroom scanners is also that once the pandemic is over, we will be able to monitor the occupancy of our teaching rooms and take action if necessary. Empty teaching rooms can then quickly be used for study spaces, for instance.’
Photos: Marc de Haan