Tuesday, July 03, 2007

On Display

Some of the labs that I work in are shared facilities operated by the department or a collection of departments. There are many positive aspects of having such facilities, but I just encountered a negative one that I had never previously even contemplated.

The head technician in one of the labs announced today that he had just finished installing a webcam system that would be accessible to the public so that anyone could go the website and watch people in the lab. His motivation for doing this was so that people could see how the machines are used, and he noted that this would be ‘educational’ for students and the public. When I read this email announcing the implementation of the webcam system, I was shocked. My students and I are primary users of this facility, and I was not consulted. I don't really have any say in the running of the lab, or I would has squashed this idea before it was implemented.

I would have been very upset by the webcam installation no matter what, but perhaps because I have been dealing with some security issues involving safety in my department recently, I acted extremely negatively to the webcam. The lab manager is clearly not thinking that he just created the perfect way for people to check and see when women are working alone at night or on weekends in the lab.

Based on my strenuous objections, he says he will reconsider his plan. Even though it will make him sad to take down his nifty little web-thing, I am pretty sure he will. It just didn’t occur to him that it was a safety issue.

The strange and disturbing person whom I described in a previous post has been sighted several times in the department recently, though I have mostly been out of town and have not seen him. Various people have called the campus police, but the police have yet to arrive in time to encounter him.

I heard that he left a note for a female grad student, and continues to ask people about me, trying to find out where I am or how to contact me. Maybe if he could monitor the women in my department by webcam, it would make his stalking more efficient and he wouldn't have to waste so much time looking for women to scare.


Anonymous said...

As a student who uses high end shared equipment all the time - I can't even think of any piece of equipment that I would gain any knowledge of how to use by watching someone online. Usually it takes repeated trials with a seasoned user talking me through the process to gain an understanding.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right to have security concerns, and that's mostly why people don't have such systems in place, I'd imagine. The potential for abuse is simply far too high, plus, I'm relatively sure it's not even legal to broadcast people's images and actions in that way without consent. I wouldn't personally be happy with such a system even if it were limited to people who could log onto a site with a university login.

I think also the head technician might be misunderstanding the usefulness of watching a webcam system to learn how to use machines. I don't think the majority of machines are usefully learned from watching over a webcam without any sound or instruction.

Anonymous said...

Please make sure this webcam plan is not kept in place, even if it means pressing the matter with higher-ups in the university.

I am a female PhD student (in the physical sciences) and I was stalked as an undergraduate - unfortunately with violent consequences in part because the university campus police were very unhelpful.

The perpetrator eventually did serve time for this, but I would have been so thankful to have someone in the university community looking out for my safety. I urge you to keep on this.

Perhaps a compromise could be suggested. Film could be recorded of researchers using the facility in various contexts. This film could then be posted to view online, with everyone's consent and not live. It seems this would still serve the educational purposes.

Anonymous said...

*Shudder*. Men and toys. They make up reasons ("educational") so they can prove what cool geeks they are. These are people who want webcams installed in their children's playrooms so they can watch them from their computers...

In our country something like this is strictly prohibited in the working place without the express consent of the union representatives, etc.

Of course, all of Europe is flooded with the darned video surveillance cameras (to "fight terrorism" and "crime"). And I just attended talks where I learned about the state of the art in facial recognition from video pictures.

They can pretty well find *a* face (but not a particular one yet), and the algorithms get confused by black and white soccer balls. But they are making fast progress. Brrrrr.

Fight cameras like this wherever you find people putting them up with phony reasons - there are so many issues from the security one you raised to having your life on film. If George Orwell only was alive today.....

Anonymous said...

With a significant fraction of the shared equipment I've used--for some reason thermal evaporators spring to mind--there's a lot of idle time between user actions, waiting for something to pump down or for the temperature to equilibrate. Too short to get anything productive done, long enough to be boring. I definitely would not want my pencil-tapping or crossword puzzle working or other idle time activities broadcast to all the world as an example of how science works.

Nor would I want the world to see how I react when the sample I've been working on for a month breaks as I try to load it into some machine.

There's a whole lot of context with any sort of scientific machinery that a webcam can't capture.

Female Science Professor said...

Update: The webcam is dead, the links dismantled. The technician was shaken by the vehemence of my objections, and has apologized profusely. I think it was difficult for him to be accused of being insensitive (I did not make this accusation directly, but it was clearly implied). My department chair and the director of the lab backed me up, and all is well.

Anonymous said...

It is all extremely incredulous that a university can even sugguest something like that.

I should probably add, that I'm a first time viewer. And your blog has presented some issues that I have never been conscious to. So, below is more of a general comment.

I'm a 'FemaleUndergraduateStudent'and thankfully have NOT experienced any kind of gender-related discrimination. There are numerous female students within the same engineering/IT major as I am in. But I guess when you're (I mean me) young the world is kinder than it really is.

The first time I discovered your blog I was in the process of writing course evaluations and frankly I was quite disturbed at the contents of your blog.

I did some reflecting, and it dawned on me that: indeed some (or most) female professors I've meet worked harder, are more dedicated than the male counterparts. However, as students, we would be more respectful and trusting of the older male professors. And this must have been if not hurtful, at least disappointing for those disadvantaged and underappreciated professors.

Maybe, it's because I'm not in science or that I'm more of an artistic soul; but I have always felt that although people say: "It's a man's world." That, nature is one a woman's side. And, that, whether male or female we don't have to fight who we are. Like two jigsaw puzzles that just go together without effort.

Life's never easy, or simple by any measure; but the times are changing, especially for people like me, the younger generation. And for that, I'm really, truely thankful. For this blog, and persons like you who make it happen.

Anonymous said...

Looks like everyone brought up the important issues: "safety", "lack of educational value", "privacy a la 1984", and "avoiding embarrassment and reprimand".

I like the last one since there has been plenty of time that I've fallen asleep in front of a really expensive machine waiting for my run to finish in the evening. Or swearing loudly, talking in foreign languages and making wild gestures just because no one is around when something goes wrong. All that stuff would have to go with a webcam.

Typing in lyrics from your favorite songs and poems, or "Hal, would you like to play a game of chess?" as a command string while you're doing a run to get back "Incorrect Input" would also be verboten. Unless the webcam is pointed away from the computer screen. That way you can look busy. Still, I probably look fat sitting behind a computer screen and the enemies shouldn't find out.

spacekendra said...

When it comes to safety issues, most men don't think in the same terms as women. That's what I find most scary. It probably never occurred to the technician that there were any safety risks involved - what if you hadn't been there to protest?

Luckily you were, and hopefully a few more men will be a little more aware of the safety risks women face.

Ms.PhD said...

Yikes, you're right, and I wouldn't have thought of that.

I don't think it's a man-woman thing per se, though sadly only women have had experiences like one of the commenters here mentioned. So women tend to be more aware for that reason, I guess.

I'm very careful about lab safety, not so much for myself but because I know some of my coworkers are easily intimidated. One felt harassed a while back when a very "friendly" salesman came to the lab early in the morning and she was there alone. After that we changed the timing on the security system, but still.

We considered doing a webcam thing so people wouldn't have to sign up to use the equipment OR come all the way to our lab just to find out it was busy. But people were shy about being on camera. Then we thought maybe we could just point the cameras at people's feet, just to show when the machines are occupied... but feet would still be easily gender-identified.

It makes me mad that we have to worry about those kinds of things. I wish there were another solution. I don't really understand why your university doesn't have better security when you've described multiple random people wandering into your building? Can't they afford locks?