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Students and Maintenance Staff Protest Surveillance at Wesleyan University

Maintenance staff, clerical workers and students at the liberal arts college have ignited the latest campus movement against surveillance technology. But the university says they have nothing to worry about.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Mar 5 2020, 1:00pm

More than 1,000 students, campus maintenance staff, clerical workers, professors, and alumni at Wesleyan University have signed onto a petition, demanding that the small liberal arts college in Connecticut cease the implementation of a new time-keeping system, which could track and record their movements.

On February 18, administrators at Wesleyan University sent out an email announcing a new time-tracking system, known as Workforce Time, for all campus employees. Their reasons for implementing the new system were straightforward: Workforce would “consolidate the current multiple reporting systems into a single system” and eliminate “a significant amount of paper waste,” according to an email reviewed by Motherboard.

But students soon learned that the university had asked department administrators whether they would elect to use “geo-fencing”—one of the features of Workforce Time. Geofencing is a form of GPS and WiFi-based surveillance that records data from smartphones and other wireless devices within a set vicinity.

Concerned students then began circulating the petition demanding that Wesleyan “cease the implementation of Workforce until further public consultation” and publish its contract with the company “so that workers can understand exactly how their data will be used and how much money Wesleyan spent on Workforce.”

So far, the university has denied both requests, but told Motherboard it will not use Workforce Time to track the whereabouts of campus employees.

“For convenience, certain employee groups may elect to use their personal mobile phone or tablet to record time with or without location service enabled. This is entirely optional. The university is not tracking the locations of any employee or student,” Lauren Rubenstein, a spokesperson for the university told Motherboard when asked about students’ concerns about the technology. Rubenstein declined to go into detail about its contract with Workforce.

By early March, more than 1,000 community members had signed onto the petition—a substantial number for a college with an enrollment of 3,000—making Wesleyan the latest university campus to organize against the use of surveillance technologies, and likely the first to protest geofencing technology, specifically. Geofencing, a broadly defined term for creating virtual barriers using GPS and other wireless technology, has been deployed by employers, law enforcement agencies, and even parents in recent years to collect data from workers, protestors, and kids.

“I’m very concerned for workers at Wesleyan,” Huzaifa Khan, a second year at the university and campus worker who has helped discover that the university was implementing geofencing, told Motherboard. “It seems possible that the information gathered by Workforce could be used to cut the pay of workers and result in cuts in positions for administrative assistants.”

“The entire campus is in a frenzy talking about this issue. Wesleyan has an extensive history, unfortunately, of managers using surveillance."

On its website, Workforce Time, advertises that it “can help reduce labor costs” and “maximize profit,” and that its “Deep Labor Tracking” services “provide actionable insights into employee productivity [and] potential cost saving.” It also boasts about “improving employee productivity” and “reducing the size of [ ] payroll staff” at Ohio University.

“The entire campus is in a frenzy talking about this issue. Wesleyan has an extensive history, unfortunately, of managers using surveillance,” a Wesleyan maintenance worker who repairs and cleans campus buildings and wished to remain anonymous, told Motherboard. “Every time we ask a question about this we get a different answer. From what we can string together, the campus will be entirely geofenced.”

Students and other campus workers say they have received conflicting messages from different campus administrators about how geofencing will be implemented. At first administrators said it would be up to departments to determine whether student workers use geofencing.

But in a meeting with students on March 1, students say Wesleyan president Michael Roth backtracked.

“If the most opposition is around geofencing, there’s still time to make changes,” Wesleyan’s president Roth told students on March 1, according to Wesleyan Student Assembly meeting minutes reviewed by Motherboard. “I’ve seen the petition, but it says things like ‘Roth wants to know where custodians piss and shit.’ Although that’s an interesting idea, as a Freudian, it’s just misinformation. It may be the case that the thousand people who signed it don’t want geofencing. But it’s probably not the case.”

The petition does not mention Wesleyan wanting to know where campus workers use the restroom.

Wesleyan’s unionized maintenance and clerical staff also have concerns about the specter of surveillance—and voted unanimously in a recent union meeting to oppose the use of Workforce technology.

The maintenance worker who spoke to Motherboard on condition on anonymity said managers have been known to scold workers for grabbing a coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the edge of campus or stopping at a hardware store in between repair jobs.

“They do not have our respect and are not trusted by us,” the maintenance worker said. “We’re not trying to embezzle money from the university. Management makes it out that we’re a bunch of crooks, forging time cards to track our payroll. We’re not buying it.”

“There’s constant allegation that our members go to Dunkin Donuts. They don’t trust our employees,” said Seth Goldstein, a lawyer for the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, which represents clerical and maintenance workers at Wesleyan. “And there’s a fear that they’re going to use this to figure out where our members are. This is not a pro-worker type of software.”

In August 2019, the university proposed adding a new article to the maintenance staff’s union contract that would give the employer “the option to implement any time clock or time recording system including biometric timekeeping requirements (e.g. the thumbprint or facial recognition),” according to documents reviewed by Motherboard.

The union struck down the new article. Yet, when Wesleyan announced that workers would use Workforce Time, they did so without bringing the issue to the bargaining table. “The use of Workforce is a natural progression of time recording and not a required bargaining issue,” Rubenstein, the Wesleyan spokesperson, told Motherboard.

Goldstein, the union attorney, told Motherboard he will be taking action against the university. “Our contract has been in place for 40 years. These issues—biometric data collection and GPS tracking— have been bargained before. Geofencing is a large concern,” he said. “There’s a history of classism at Wesleyan. They don’t trust our workers… I will be filing a grievance.”

While it is unclear how many companies have Workforce’s geofencing system, many employers, including Oregon State University and the Ohio University, use Workforce products.

The protest at Wesleyan coincides with a surge of activism on college campuses against the use of surveillance methods. This week, students at universities, including Kent State University, DePaul University, Yale Law School and the University of Oregon have sent letters to administrators opposing the use of facial recognition technology. And in February, UCLA abandoned plans to become the first university to adopt facial recognition technology—following backlash from students.

Wesleyan plans to begin testing Workforce Time in April and to implement it fully in the summer.

Tagged:
labor
facial-recognition
campus activism
Wesleyan University
geo-fencing