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Issues Raised About Building 32 Security

By Ray C. He


A week after the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory finished its move from Technology Square to the Stata Center, or Building 32, residents including Richard M. Stallman, founder of the GNU operating system project, have expressed dissatisfaction about the operation of the security system and its effect on privacy and mobility.

Stallman, a frequent advocate for civil liberties and privacy rights, voiced his concerns after an announcement from CSAIL Director Rodney A. Brooks explained a tiered series of door locks will be used during non-business hours and advised building occupants to offer to help strangers passing by.

According to the announcement, the main doors to Building 32 are locked, but are card-accessible at night. Once occupants have entered the main doors, they must swipe their cards again to enter the lounge and common areas. Finally, an ID scan is necessary for entry to each specific research neighborhood. Temporarily, this third level of locked doors will have mechanical locks until proximity and magnetic stripe readers can be installed.

Stallman said the level of security is excessive. “In most of the campus, you can walk through the corridors,” he said. As CSAIL does not perform classified or secret research, the complex security is unwarranted, Stallman said.

Extra security may be temporary

The current high level of security in the Stata center may not be permanent, said Christopher J. Terman ’78, associate director of CSAIL.

In the future, many of the doors maybe be kept unlocked. He said that it was important to have locks available on the doors because “Obviously, if you don’t have a device, you can’t later say, ‘let’s lock this door’ because there’s no lock on it.”

The access to the building by members of the MIT community will not be restricted. “There’s no access control on the connection between Building 36 and Stata,” Terman said. “In the long run, they’ll be just open.”

The tight security is necessary during the move from Tech Square because many boxes of personal belongs are just lying around, he said. “We’re not trying to set up an armed camp at all, we’re just trying to provide some kind of access control so that our laptops don’t walk,” Terman said. “I think once we get past the move-in period, we can revert to our open during the day, standard security during the night” routine, he said.

“As we get used to the space, we can think [up] a rational strategy to get around the building without having to continually” use keys and swipe IDs, he said.

Privacy issues raised with RFID

Stallman said he objects to the electronic locks that use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) readers with MIT Cards.

“There are two reasons I will not use the pox cards,” Stallman said, using a pejorative nickname for MIT’s proximity -- or “prox” -- cards, which open doors once the card is sufficiently close to a reader. “Each is a sufficient outrage that anyone should refuse them,” he insisted.

“They are RFIDs, which are extremely dangerous, and can be scanned at any time,” he explained. “While MIT’s readers can only read them from a couple of inches, it’s possible to make a higher-powered reader to read them from several feet away.”

The system can also be used to keep track of personal information and the location of people, he said. MIT already saves the data and “it’s extremely easy for the police to access that data with” the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, he said.

The MIT Card Office keeps successful card-swipe data for two weeks, according to its Web site.

Metal keys suggested

Instead of having RFID readers for access, Stallman said Building 32 should have metal keys available for all doors, which would solve the problem of privacy and tracking people.

“If they switched some of those pox locks to metal keys, they’d have a few metal keys to deal with along with the thousands of others” in use in other buildings, he said.

Others say metal keys create accountability concerns. “Handing them out is not the problem, the problem is we never get them back,” Terman said. “Our experience in Tech Square is that it seems that half the world has access to our doors,” he said. “When people leave the lab, they take the keys with them.”

Faculty work on privacy solution

Others share Stallman’s concerns about privacy. “I think a lot of people here agree,” that the current system has drawbacks, Terman said.

“We’d be interested in having a way with having the electronic system” without the downside of privacy concerns, Terman said. “We’re looking into how to provide an anonymous electronic system.”

Currently, Building 32 uses the system provided by the MIT Card Office. “In some ways, we just piggy-backed on the MIT system,” Terman said.

“The idea was to start up some student projects that would use the same set of electronics, but would basically be an alternative to the MIT system,” Terman said.

Brooks said he asked Ronald L. Rivest and Harold Abelson PhD ’73 to look into this possibility, and they’re “seeing if they can get some student projects, say this summer, to see if we can think of a better, more palpable solution,” he said.

Such a solution would involve “some kind of security on the information being collected, such as cryptographic techniques,” unlike the MIT system, which has electronic keys that can be easily copied,” Brooks said.