The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 33.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

MIT Card Raises Issues of Privacy, Security

By Ifung Lu
Staff Reporter

The installation of the new card reading system in campus dormitories has raised privacy, security, and convenience issues. Although entrances to dormitories will not be recorded, the fact that the potential to do so exists in the system's software is of concern, according to two students heading a task force on the card system.

At Wednesday's Undergraduate Association Council meeting, J. Paul Kirby '92 and Stacy E. McGeever '93 were appointed to chair a UA task force to investigate the concerns. McGeever and Kirby served as UA president and vice president two years ago.

MIT Cards will function as card keys for electronic lock system, allowing access to dormitories and access to parking lots for students with parking permits. Card readers are currently being installed in the main and perimeter doors of the dormitories. The old locks will be changed so that residents will no longer be able to use keys.

Next House and MacGregor residents are already using the electronic system to enter their dormitories. The Westgate and Vassar Street parking lots have been converted to the new system.

The MIT Card will also serve as picture identification card, meal services card, and library card. The Housing Office plans to issue MIT Cards to students next term.

The new system will have the capability to record entrances into dormitories, but "we will not be tracking [students]," said Associate Director of Housing and Food Services Kenneth R. Wisentaner.

Still, maintaining student privacy with this system is a major concern for Kirby and McGeever. Since the system will continue to evolve, there is no guarantee that entrances to dormitories will not be recorded in the future, McGeever said.

Parking lot usage will be recorded and kept for a two-year period, according to Chief of Campus Police Anne P. Glavin. The Campus Police will be using this information "for parking and traffic enforcement," as well as for long range planning, she said.

"There will be an anti-passback feature on the system," Glavin added. This will prevent people from parking and then loaning their card to somebody else to park.

In addition, itemized records of Val-u-dine transactions will be kept in case of account disputes. Although the Housing and Food Services Office has not officially decided how long to keep these records, Wisentaner estimated that the data would be maintained for one academic year.

All of these functions will be coordinated by a dedicated VAX system that is not tied into the MIT network, Wisentaner said. Access to the system will be limited to Campus Police for parking data only, and the Housing and Food Services Office for Val-u-dine accounts only, he said. A major priority "is to protect the student's privacy."

Convenience also a concern

Kirby and McGeever believe that problems of privacy, convenience, and security could develop with this new system, and that students should address these issues to avoid future problems. "We're dealing with issues that will hit us now, but we're also looking at issues that will affect us later on," McGeever said.

Another concern is the card reading system's convenience and security. If students find the system inconvenient, they may decide to prop dormitory side doors open, McGeever said. For example, this could occur if side doors are not equipped with card readers, or if there is no key-list to allow access to friends, she said.

Kirby is also concerned about the security of the information on the system. The system is vulnerable for several reasons, he said. The system is a dedicated one, making it easier to tap data than it is to tap the busy data highways of the MIT network, he explained. Also, the novelty of the system may be an attractive factor to hackers, Kirby said.

Wisentaner disagreed and said that the system was safe from hacking. "The system we use is an excellent system," he said.

"Convenience, security is of highest priority. This is still a new project and we're learning from this," he said.

But Kirby and McGeever believe that student input should be part of this learning process. "We want to have some role in making the policy," Kirby said.