University News

Police monitoring ‘could happen’ without U. awareness

News Editor
Wednesday, March 7, 2012

It is possible that Brown students have been or are being targeted by unauthorized police monitoring efforts, though the University has not seen any evidence to suggest it, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn told The Herald.

The issue of unauthorized student monitoring drew global attention last month, when the Associated Press reported that the New York Police Department has kept tabs on Muslim student groups at schools in or near New York. The list of schools includes Penn, Yale, Columbia and New York University.

Brown was not mentioned in the report.

Monitoring these groups included checking their websites and sending undercover agents on group trips, during which they counted how often students prayed. The NYPD circulated weekly reports on the agents’ findings.


University precautions

Klawunn noted that one of the key elements of the recent NYPD monitoring was that it was not conducted through universities or in conjunction with university or local police departments.

“If we had a way to know what’s going on, we would be working to prevent it,” she said. But since the University is unaware of any police spying, there are no actions it can currently take. 

In the past, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has investigated incidents occurring on Brown’s campus, she said. Such events were unrelated to the issue of unauthorized student monitoring or religious activity and were preceded by criminal activity of some sort, she said. The FBI has worked with the University and the Department of Public Safety on those investigations.

“We had full knowledge,” Klawunn said.

The Providence Police Department also works with DPS when investigating Brown students.

If students suspected they were the subjects of any hacking or external monitoring, Klawunn said the University would work with Computing and Information Services to erect safeguards. But information about student groups and leaders is often available in less protected media, like newspapers, she said.

“(Monitoring) probably could happen without us being able to be aware,” she said.

David Sherry, chief information security officer, said students who transmit information over the Brown-Secure wireless network or through Brown email accounts do not need to be concerned about unauthorized monitoring. Information transmitted over Brown-Secure is encrypted, so police forces could not “snip the traffic,” he said. University email accounts are also “very secure,” he said, and any police force would be required to present a subpoena to access material sent through them.

“We would never allow them access to our email system,” Sherry said. “That just wouldn’t happen.”

In terms of online monitoring, the only action the police could take is monitoring websites like Facebook, Reddit and blogs, he said.


‘It could have easily been us’

In the wake of the AP’s story, the Brown Muslim Students Association sent a letter to Yale President Richard Levin, who released a statement Feb. 20 condemning the NYPD surveillance. The Brown group’s letter pledged their “full support” to both Yale and its Muslim Students Association and thanked Levin for his statement of support.

The association does not believe it was monitored by the NYPD, said Board Member Farzanah Ausaluth ’14, citing both the University’s distance from New York and the incomplete state of the group’s website.

Mak Hussain, the president of Penn’s Muslim Students Association, agreed that the University’s distance from New York makes Brown students a less likely target for NYPD surveillance. Though students should not be “paranoid,” he said, Muslim students may want to keep in mind the possibility of being monitored.

“I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that this was bigger than just the schools listed,” he said.

Members of the Brown association were returning from an Ivy Muslim conference at Yale when news of the monitoring broke, said Board Member Norin Ansari ’13.

“It was a feeling of betrayal,” she said. “I know my heart went out to them, and I wondered, ‘Were we on the list as well?'”

“It could have easily been us,” she added.

The Brown association has extended support to students at other schools but has not made a public statement, Ansari said. “It’s been kind of a behind-the-scenes effort, I guess, on our part, just to show a bit of solidarity,” she said.

David Coolidge ’01, associate University chaplain for the Muslim community, also condemned the monitoring. Given the backlash the NYPD has received, it is unlikely it would initiate any kind of surveillance at the University, he said.

Ausaluth called the NYPD’s actions “unjustified.”

“We don’t stand for anything extreme or anything that would sort of raise significant criminal sort of red flags,” he said. “We’re just trying to be open about our religion.”

Klawunn said the University wants to be supportive of its Muslim community and has been in touch with Coolidge regularly. 

“We want to make sure our Muslim students feel supported,” she said.


A history of surveillance

Though no evidence has suggested the reported spying extended to Brown, there is a history of law enforcement keeping tabs on Brown students, wrote David Kertzer ’69, professor of anthropology and former provost, in an email to The Herald.

Kertzer headed the Campus Action Council — an antiwar group in the 1960s — while a student at Brown. Though group members suspected they were being monitored, they were never able to confirm those suspicions until years later, Kertzer wrote, when The Herald uncovered redacted FBI reports that detailed the council’s activity.

The nature of the FBI’s monitoring was never made clear, Kertzer wrote, but it would likely have required little more than “someone showing up at our public activities (rallies, demonstrations, etc.) and monitoring The Herald, the Pembroke Record and the Providence Journal.”

Though he noted that the anxious climate improved during the 1980s and 1990s, the aftermath of 9/11 “spawned” police activity similar to that of the 1960s, he wrote.

“I would not be terribly surprised to find out about more recent government espionage of this kind, especially aimed at Islamic groups on campuses,” Kertzer wrote.