BREAKING: New Safety App Triggers Concerns for Student Privacy

On Friday, March 18th, the Office of Communications sent an email to students, employees and faculty about a new feature available for members of Kenyon’s community. The message went largely unnoticed, perhaps the result of the students’ return to campus following a two-week break. The email introduced the encouraged usage of the Rave Guardian app, a software intended to amplify and maintain safety on campus.

The app allows the Kenyon community to alert Campus Safety about personal emergencies and to anonymously notify the office about suspicious or dangerous activity. It’s able to do these things effectively because it requires an individual to share their location services with the app. The app’s utility in personal emergencies and in cases of suspicious activity is not in question, but its implications for student and employee privacy should not be ignored. 

The email included a list of ways the app could prove to be useful for the average individual in Gambier.

“The app will allow students to:

  • Press one button to call Campus Safety officers or call 911.
  • Create a network of friends and family to message quickly in case of an emergency or a risky situation.
  • Set a safety timer for walking alone or off campus (the app measures time from the start of a walk to an expected arrival location, and if a user doesn’t turn off the timer upon arrival, officers are alerted).
  • Send anonymous information and photos to Campus Safety if a user witnesses a crime or suspicious activity.”

The “one button to call” mechanism isn’t new–most phones have similar functions that can be used if the individual keeps Campus Safety’s number in their phone as a contact.* The same can be said for 911, which can also be added as a contact.

The “network of friends and family to message quickly” is also available on the interface of a standard phone, such as a text message to a contact in one’s phone. One can assume that if someone is a considered a “friend” or “family” they already exist as a contact on one’s phone.

The “safety timer” could be a valuable tool for individuals living in an urban setting, but it is not clear that there is an imminent need (or utility) for the feature in Gambier. Yale introduced a similar application to the Rave Guardian App last year, but saw low student usage rates. 

Finally, the ability to send “anonymous information and photos to Campus Safety” is important, and arguably should exist in some form at Kenyon. Students, faculty and staff should feel comfortable sending tips or observations to Safety if they feel unsafe or see something suspicious. However, an app that requires sharing location of each participating individual is not necessary. It is problematic.

In providing Kenyon with constant access to our location, and perhaps a log of this data, the college could track our individual movements. This means that college officials could have access to where you spent the night at, where you’re going now, and which NCA you entered 10 minutes ago. We acknowledge that this claim might be following the potential of this app to its most extreme logical end, however, in the world of big data, this claim is not unprecedented, nor unheard of. Likewise, there is the potential for the data collected to be logged, which would potentially allow the College to analyze it and use it for other purposes.

While The Thrill is of the opinion that the College is making an honest effort to ensure the safety of its students and staff, the Rave Guardian app is simply not compatible with privacy.  Instead, we suggest that, alternatively, the College should utilize a submission service that would preserve the feature of anonymity, but eliminate the requirement to share location data and thus compromise privacy.

The email makes an honest, but important misstep in quoting Ronald Griggs, vice president for library and information services:

The more people who use it, the safer we are.

The unfortunate reality is that most of the features offered by the app are already available to smart phone users (in and some cases, non-smart phone users) and do not require users to compromise their privacy.  The whereabouts of students are already monitored by tracking the use of K-Card activity in locked buildings (specifically, residence halls) on campus. There are preferences within the app, that allow one to specify how much information they’re willing to share. But for this initiative to truly “work” and prove to be an effective form of safety or security, users must cede enough information such that privacy is not an option.

We have perhaps been placed in a false dichotomy: we must choose between safety or privacy. It is The Thrill’s contention that this is, indeed, false. Do you want Campus Safety, and perhaps the larger administration to have access to a record of your whereabouts? Where does one draw the line between safety and privacy, especially within a relatively safe and quiet campus such as Kenyon? Let us know what you think in the comments. 

  • Campus Safety’s emergency number is 740.427.5555*
  • Campus Safety’s main line is 740.427.5000*

5 responses

  1. This article makes some really good points. I was unsure about some people’s reactions to that email–my initial response was the classic “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, there’s no problem.” But you make two excellent points: yes, the information shared by the app is elective, but it is also largely unnecessary for safety; and yes, that information is inherently harmless, but it also carries with it the potential for misuse. Thank you for writing this piece and especially for including a sensible solution. I think a digital method of anonymous reporting would make a lot of sense, and it would in no way require the user to be perpetually sharing their location with the college.

  2. Wow the thrill does an in-depth analysis of an aspect of campus life that isn’t just privileged kids making inside jokes. Neat!

  3. The article also makes it clear that the app allows us to turn off some features and turn on others. While I wouldn’t want to share my location with the college at all times, if I’m going on a walk alone, or even walking back from the library alone at night, I feel much safer knowing that safety can find me if I’m not back in 20 minutes. Similarly, if there was an emergency on campus, I appreciate the option of turning on the location feature and notifying safety if calling were not an option. I know that both of these imply worst-case scenarios, but those features exist for a reason and do bring peace of mind to some of us on campus.

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