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Campus crime's new watchdog: the Web

Anonymous tips from students help tackle stealing, drug use.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 1998



BOSTON

George Orwell was partly right. Big Brother may not report you. But your college roommate might. Or maybe the guy across the hall - or across campus, using their computers.

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So if you toss a water-balloon out of a window - or allow underage drinking or drugs in your room - a written account of these exploits may in seconds be winging its way anonymously over the Internet to campus police.

One of the newest techno-trends on American college and university campuses is tipping (some call it tattling) campus police to illicit activity by filling out online forms posted on the department's World Wide Web page.

At least 100 - and possibly many more - schools now have software enabling them to solicit eyewitness campus crime tips on the Web, experts say. Many see it as a 1990s update of the old telephone "tip" line for catching lawbreakers. Duke University, the University of Georgia, the University of Louisville, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are just a few schools offering crime-tip Web pages.

Some worry, however, that the new breed of tip technology might lead to a spate of false accusations and college liability if it unleashes the dark side of America's "informant culture," as one expert calls it.

Don't tell that to Donald Childers, a University of Richmond police detective who writes software on the side. Three years ago he wrote what may be one of the nation's first online campus-security tip sites.

So far, 90 percent of the information received over the university's campus police Web site has been "significant," he says, with more than two-dozen tips related to narcotics alone, and many tips on stolen property.

"We've had comments from university students saying they are very pleased with results," he says. "Before we had people come onto campus partying and selling drugs. Now that's fallen by the wayside - when students go to a party they don't have to worry about that element being there."

Colleges and universities have been under increasing pressure in recent years to cut campus crime. But some have been criticized for using computer technology too freely, including using techniques that record a data-trail of individual students' movements around campus.

Still, anything that might help reduce crime gets a careful look these days. So while the University of Richmond owns the software copyright, Detective Childers has shared the software for free with at least 100 schools.

Normally, e-mail is not strictly private, he points out. To help protect tippers, his program strips off identifying information on the message and even encrypts the message so nobody but police can read it, he says.

Aside from anonymity, Childers says the biggest attraction of Web tipping is that the sender can limit the information in his message to whatever he or she wants to submit. In a phone tip, an officer quizzes the tipster for various details. And that probing worries some informants, he says - and some civil libertarians.

"I don't think it pushes us over the line" of privacy invasion, says Ernest Winsor, a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "But there is an aspect to this that makes it too easy for a thousand eyes to be watching all the time - so that people's sense of freedom is eroded."

Deborah Hurley, director of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project in Cambridge, Mass., deals with policy issues concerning information technology. She says she sees the Web version of tipping as an update on phoning in tips, and so does not worry about privacy.

Still, she wonders if the tip messages can truly be anonymous or whether the interaction may be identifiable. She also questions the legal liability a university may incur if it is tipped - but doesn't act - and someone is injured.

Similarly, Harvey Silverglate, co-author of "The Shadow University: the Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses," says that as long as the collection of information is "voluntary," he does not see a problem.

Yet he worries what this phenomenon says about American society, when university tip pages display a large rotating eyeball staring back at the potential tipster - as the University of Richmond's site does. The University of Georgia's site boasts an "interrogation room" on its "G.O.T.C.H.A" site - which stands for "Getting on to Crime at Home Anonymously."

"It's not technically a civil-liberties issue," he says. "It's more a cultural issue. Do we want to be a society where we're always peering into each other's business and then reporting it to Big Brother?"

Such tools, he argues, contribute to an "informant culture that breeds suspicion, recrimination and hostility - which wise people in authority would do well to avoid," he says.

But that's not how Chuck Horton, chief of police at the University of Georgia, sees it. "This is just another new way to reach somebody," he says. "If police departments don't see how things have changed and how to use technology to reach people, they're going to miss the boat."

* Comments? E-mail claytonm@csps.com