2DH3: Campus Security – How we can use MGPS to help

Campus Map featured at http://www.mcmaster.ca/welcome/campusmap.cfm

When attempting to solve a social justice issue, digital methods are not often thought to be effective at ameliorating the problem. Technical and speculative processes revolving around digital design and prototyping are methods of creating a greater understanding of any issue. Part of the process of prototyping is to filter out design flaws that potentially are detrimental to the purpose or function of the prototype.

Campus safety is an issue that affects student life. Rape culture, harassment, vulnerability and violence, are all issues that affect student safety on a daily basis. Thus we were compelled to prototype a technology that engages with campus safety as a social justice issue. By design, the item should bring awareness to social justices issues by revealing the complexity of the issue through critical analysis. To do so, we created a prototype of a student card with an embedded GPS and alarm button that serves as a proof of concept.

We are exploring a prototype for a new comprehensive student security system that will be embedded into a new ID student card issued to every single student registered at McMaster University. The student card will be made out of the same plastic as the current one, however, it will have an embedded microchip roughly the size and design of a micro SIM card that is in the common smartphone. The Micro Global Positioning System (MGPS) will be embedded in the corner of the student card with a tactile button over top of it. This tactile button would be similar to that of the old tactile iPhone ‘home’ button. The card would be connected to an on-campus security network that only campus security has access to. The MGPS would not reveal one’s location to campus security until the button of the MGPS within the student identity card has been activated, allowing a level of anonymity and safety.


Population numbers found in the 2015-2016 McMaster FactBook. http://www.mcmaster.ca/vpacademic/documents/FactBook2015-2016.pdf

In order to activate the card, the MGPS must be triggered by pressing the button in a specific way. There are only two combinations in which to press the button. The first is pressing the button rapidly for two consistent seconds. This is essentially the “I’m screwed” emergency button that signifies one is in need of immediate help. The second combination that triggers the MGPS is by holding down the button for 2 seconds. This will trigger the MGPS to track your location and alert McMaster security of your whereabouts and that you are uncomfortable. This feature must be turned off within 10 minutes of being activated or else campus security will go to your position. Once reaching the desired position the student is required to hold down the button again to deactivate the MGPS which will notify campus security that you have reached your destination safely. Furthermore, the MGPS will be deactivated if someone walks over 100 meters off campus as campus security is only responsible for on-campus safety. The extra 100 meters is an added buffer zone so that the student is secure as they leave the campus. This secondary feature is so that if a student were to feel uncomfortable on campus, they can at east notify someone to their position thereby extending the safety network off-campus.

The addition of a security MGPS chip embedded into a student card necessitates an adequate technological infrastructure. There are two options in which to integrate every student card on campus with the security department. The first is to have every student card connect directly to a single terminal located at the centre of campus or at the campus security headquarters. The second option is to use the already installed security poles on campus as beacons that create a network allowing student cards to connect to them. The security poles act as a localized beacon that relay information regarding the status and location of currently activated cards to campus security headquarters.

There are drawbacks to the proposed prototype and these reflect the general design process which was essentially a problem solving exercise. These problems are brought to light during the design process and require reflection on the social justice issue and proof of concept at hand. The design process was essentially either proposing an idea or scrutinizing it with the assumption that the proposal was innately flawed. Throughout this process, we would generate dialogue as to what was an acceptable and effective solution to solve the specific problem at hand. By no means have we tackled all of the design flaws and potential issues inherent in our proposed prototype, however there were a few that we felt to be quite obvious and jarring.

The first and most obvious problem we thought of was that of personal rights, including anonymity. Although we already live in a world filled with cell phones which can be tracked, knowingly carrying a GPS on your person is still not ideal to maintain safety. The fact that we had to come up with a technology for this social justice issue illuminates the fact that humans have done poorly to change their behaviour. GPS tracking can easily be abused by either campus security staff, or those who have or gain access to the GPS tracking terminal. There is a very real threat of a hacker gaining access to the terminal and instead of using it to protect people, they could use it to track and hurt people. Furthermore, we were not sure whether student data should be stored or erased every so often. Tracking student movements seems a little totalitarian, however, the data could be useful when trying to help solve a case of campus violence.

Fast Facts from the 2015-2016 McMaster FactBook http://www.mcmaster.ca/vpacademic/documents/FactBook2015-2016.pdf

Regardless of how much security and precautions we add into the card, infrastructure and network, there will be always a potential security risk if anything were to be compromised. Not all students will accept having a potential risk on their person and therefore we thought it was appropriate to allow people to opt out of the security program. This, in essence, deactivates your card rendering it useless to security and hackers alike. This would be done through Mosaic. In addition to the opt-out option, the student cards would all be issued with a RFID/GPS protection case which would prevent the card from being read while inside the case. We are still speculating as to what material and what functionality this accessory should look like however its main purpose is to allow you to essentially “get off the grid”. The other security risk is if a student were to lose their student card. Someone could easily take advantage of you and your identity if the card was still active. Again, if someone lost their student card, you would report and deactivate it through Mosaic.

Design prototype of Campus Security MGPS button on University Student Identity Card.

When analyzing further, the second major problem we faced was that the button on the student card could be pressed accidentally. This happens to all of us once in awhile when we pocket dial someone. This would be a huge liability as we don’t want McMaster security services to respond to an accidental call especially if there is an emergency elsewhere. That is why we implemented the tactile patterns and 2 second action time for the two different status options the card offers. By making the GPS respond to only a very specific tactile input, it is highly unlikely the GPS will be set off in a backpack or pocket. Furthermore, if someone were to use the student card as a joke and trigger the button, that would be subject to a heavy fine. This service is for student protection and any student attempting to compromise that function will be penalized.

McMaster Student Identity Card with prototype RFID/GPS Protection case.

Although the prototype has many inherent flaws, there are some strengths. The purpose of this prototype is to promote and maintain campus security. As we discussed the various problems of having a GPS on your person, we neglected to recognize the fact that our smartphones act the same way. From this, we realized that using technology to protect the security of others is ironic because everyday our information is being sold to corporations who in turn manipulate us into buying products or services based on hour data. By engaging in this act of Critical Making, we were able to engage in a speculative process that revealed a lot more complexity within our prototype than we originally inferred as swell as provided us with a greater understanding to issues surrounding Campus Violence.

— Sara Penner and Matt Monrose

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