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Public safety or ‘big brother’ watching: College mandates GPS cell phone tracking

While America Sleeps … a new, intrusive plan is underfoot, and may be coming to a college near you.

wethepeople.jpgShould cell phone ownership a requirement for college attendance? In the case of New Jersey’s Montclair State University, every student will now be required to have a cell phone — not just any cellphone — but one with GPS technology that enables emergency locating of any student on campus — and it all in the interest of “public safety.” The cost, however, is to be borne by the students to the tune of a $420 annual fee for the Sprint-operated cell phone, a cost bundled into the students’ tuition bill. It’s the first such student-bears-the-cost program in the country.

What do students get for their money? According to a report published by CBS 2 HD today, the Montclair University plan offers “50 peak minutes a month, unlimited text messaging to any carrier, unlimited campus-based data usage, and student activated emergency tracking.” That implies students may use the system in case of emergency, yet the CBS report also referenced a comment, ostensibly supporting this intrusive program as a matter of safety, by Montclair Police Chief Paul Cell:

“What it does is allow students to have an extra pair or group of people watching over them when they are going from one location to another.”

To me, that’s the crux of the problem: not just the mandatory cost, but the eyes of big brother.

Arguments and debate over this cell phone plan fall into several camps. One view favors the feeling of security given the tragic events that have happened with school shootings and other campus crime. Another view suggests that if the issue is campus security, the college should be footing the bill, not students already feeling the cash crunch of rising college costs, especially if they are already hooked into another cell phone service plan. Fairleigh Dickinson University, also in New Jersey, has a similar plan but in that case, the school underwrites the cost of the service for all on-campus students. A third and underreported take on the issue is rooted in civil liberties and personal privacy — don’t tread on me or my rights to privacy. No one seems to be concerned with what the toe-hold of this ostensibly simple bit of tracking could lead to.

Taking the concept of monitoring a giant step further, in Demarest, New Jersey, live cameras that allow up to 16 views of a classroom or hall are hardwired directly to the local police, allowing constant monitoring of everything from every angle. The cameras are installed in “public areas” of each school (what isn’t “public” in a school?) and turns a single officer with a high tech computer into a “surveillance team.” [Sign of Times: N.J. School Cameras Feed Live to Cops: Jay Dowd, CBS2HD, 11.12.07] Is this security? Or intrusiveness?

Personally, I resent this monitoring mania. I’m opinionated but otherwise and prize my privacy highly. I wouldn’t consider owning a cell phone, and even if I wanted one, the buttons are too small for my arthritic fingers. If it is really important, call me at home. On a land line. I realize that for many people cell phones serve a purpose, including making emergency contacts, but so far, cell phone ownership has been a matter of free choice for free people in a free country. I choose to be free of cell phones, but if a student (or anyone else) wants to voluntarily subscribe to an emergency service/monitoring program, let them do so or create an emergency contact program for that purpose.

What concerns me is the “mandating” of this ability to monitor, to control, to locate.

gps-tracker.jpgI cannot help but believe that the ability to monitor student whereabouts every minute, every hour, every day is a situation ripe for use and abuse by anyone with a little bit of power or a more specific agenda. Such monitoring is too easily diverted from the realm of “public safety” to something more subversive, including the suppression of dissenting voices. Students at the college level are adults, for most part age 18 and up, and in the current academic climate are also equally apt to be midlife and older adults upgrading their level of training and education. Do they really need to be tagged? Will students be forced to give up their educational plans if they do not comply with the cell phone requirement?

Requiring that students subscribe to this ability to monitor is just one more administrative boot stepping on and grinding down personal freedom. The war on civil liberties continues.

Whether or not to allow such monitoring should be a matter of personal choice by the student, not a case of big brother opting when and where and how to check up on any individual at random — yet that is what this system would allow. In this carefully crafted guise of public safety, We the People lose our privacy and our right of personal freedom. Do you know where your civil liberties are?

Quotes were derived from a CBS2HD article, Montclair State unveils mandatory “school phone,” written by Jay Dow.


  1. Reprinted here with permission,

    Hi Debbie,
    As a college professor who really loves all of her students I can’t totally oppose this idea. With all of the kidnapping, etc. that is happening I have to think about my college student granddaughter and the accident she had going home from the University of Wyoming campus. In those wideopen spaces it could have been hours before anyone found her overturned SUV and maybe too late to save her. Fortunately, a couple came by soon after the accident and called 911.
    I have taught in colleges and universities for 39 years and I have known of no administrators who have the time or interest in checking to see where 8000+ students are at any given time! Just another case of seeing the
    8000+ other side of a situation from one who hates the Big Brother concept as much as anyone could.

    Dr. LuAnnette Butler, NCC
    Professor of Psychology
    Coordinator of School Counselor Education
    Austin Peay State University
    Clarksville, TN 37044

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