Edinburgh University denies surveillance claims by student protestors

Edinburgh University denies surveillance claims by student protestors

Security staff at Edinburgh University have been accused of “intimidating” student protestors by threatening to use Wi-Fi data to identify them and “damage their careers”. 

At a trans-rights protest last October, campus security allegedly told students occupying a lecture theatre that a Wi-Fi service called eduroam would be used to identify them. 

Eduroam is a free, global WiFi service for university staff and students which can be used at academic institutions around the world.

In “exceptional circumstances” Edinburgh University can use the WiFi data for internal investigations, a freedom of information request has now revealed.

Critics said the potential for a university to use eduroam for surveillance has “serious implications” for freedom of speech and assembly. The University and College Union (UCU) Edinburgh told The Ferret it has “repeatedly raised concerns” with university management about security at campus protests.

But Edinburgh University said it fully supports the right to peaceful protest and has “never used Wi-Fi user data to identify anyone involved in demonstrations”. Its security team denied threatening students and were cleared after an internal investigation but staff have been told to “revisit training” on eduroam.

The Ferret’s revelations follow violence erupting on university campuses in the US over the Hamas-Israel war and pro-Palestinian students occupying some university campuses in the UK.

The Edinburgh University protest at the centre of controversy took place on 11 October 2023, at 40 George Square, a building on campus previously named the David Hume Tower. 

I don’t think students and staff would be comfortable using eduroam if they knew they would be snooped on like this.

The demonstration was over the launch of a book called “Sex and Gender: A Contemporary Reader” which was branded transphobic by critics. 

However, the co-editors of the book responded by saying the claims of transphobia were libellious, and the university allowed the event to proceed, saying it is committed to free speech, respectful debate and discussion, as well as the right to protest.

An estimated 40 protestors were outside the event, with many holding a range of different LGBTQ+ flags. University security and police also attended.

Several staff and student groups – including Staff Pride Network and UCU – had signed an open letter arguing it was inappropriate for the book launch to take place.

Earlier that day, students had occupied 40 George Square to try to prevent the event from taking place – and this is when security allegedly threatened to use WiFi to identify protestors, some of whom wore masks to protect their identities.

The Ferret has seen a statement by security stating that “mask-wearing at protests is illegal” and they would “do everything to identify these people”.

Security later denied the students’ allegations after a formal complaint was made by a staff member. The complaint was dismissed by the university which said “there’s no evidence that protestors were threatened with the use of eduroam to identify them”.  

However, it recommended the head of security “revisits training with his team on this subject to confirm their awareness that this shouldn’t be used as a threat to discourage protestors from the occupation of university spaces”.

Edinburgh University denies surveillance claims by student protestors
“Management should make clear that threats to identify protesters via their use of university Wi-Fi are unacceptable,” Sophia Woodman, from UCU Edinburgh, told The Ferret. Image: Glenn Carstens-Peters

Security cleared but ordered to “revisit training”

The freedom of information revealed the institution can use Wi-Fi user data to identify people in certain circumstances. 

The permission for access to the data can be given retrospectively, and anyone using eduroam can be identified on campus. 

The university’s FOI response said: “The University of Edinburgh is a member of the JANET Roaming Service which in turn is a member of the eduroam federation. The eduroam service provided by JANET in the UK is a federated service that enables JANET connected organisations to offer high quality secure network services for visitors from other eduroam-enabled organisations, without the need for guest account management.” 

It added: “Log data including user identity details, network access points, timings etc can, in exceptional circumstances be used a part of information security, or formal HR or student investigations. Operational data may also be combined with other university owned data to provide actionable information.”

The staff member who submitted the FOI and the formal complaint told The Ferret, on condition of anonymity, that there are “serious implications for freedom of speech” across the UK, and that people “don’t seem to be aware that universities have this power”.

“I was stunned to learn that eduroam WiFi can be used to identify and locate anyone on university campuses,” they added. “I don’t think students and staff would be comfortable using eduroam if they knew they would be snooped on like this.

“Freedom of assembly is more important on university campuses than arguably anywhere else. Therefore it is profoundly concerning to hear allegations that Edinburgh university security tried intimidating peaceful protestors by saying that eduroam would be used to identify protestors and damage their careers. 

“When I raised my concerns about the conduct of security, management refused to review the body camera footage from the security officers at protests, dismissing serious allegations of wrongdoing as hearsay.”

Sophia Woodman, co-president of the University and College Union (UCU) Edinburgh, said that in the last year the union has repeatedly raised concerns with university management about “instances of overreach by campus security” at protests. 

“Management should make clear that threats to identify protesters via their use of university Wi-Fi are unacceptable, and an infringement on the right to protest,” she added. “There is no justification for tracking protesters in this way in the absence of any breach of the law. We call on management to clarify their use of eduroam data to everyone in the university community as soon as possible.”

The university should stand up for the human rights of its community but instead management treat every tool available to them as a weapon to threaten student protesters with.

Staff-Student Solidarity Network

A spokesperson for a campaign group at the university called Staff-Student Solidarity Network said using the technology for surveillance purposes with no oversight or need to legally justify their actions was “appalling”. 

They added: “Privacy is a human right and a crucial part of a democratic society. The university should stand up for the human rights of its community but instead management treat every tool available to them as a weapon to threaten student protesters with.”

A spokesperson for Edinburgh University said: “Our professional security team are fully trained in the management of a range of scenarios, including protests. We have never used WiFi user data to identify anyone involved in demonstrations. We will always support the right to take part in lawful, peaceful and respectful protest.”

Across the UK last week, students were protesting against the war in Gaza on campus at several universities including Leeds, Newcastle and Bristol. Tents were set up outside buildings and a camp was set up by Warwick University students in the town’s piazza. 

Protesters want their universities to divest from firms involved with Israel in response to its deadly military operation in the Gaza Strip.

The Union of Jewish Students issued a statement on Thursday saying Jewish students were angry, tired and hurt by “the continuous torrent of antisemitic hatred on campus” since the 7 October attacks by Hamas.

The group, which claims to represent 9,000 Jewish students in the UK and Ireland, said that while students have a right to protest, “these encampments create a hostile and toxic atmosphere on campus for Jewish students.”

However, Palestine Solidarity Campaign youth and student campaigns officer Stella Swain said: “All the protests so far have been completely peaceful. There is nothing to indicate that they wouldn’t be.”

The prime minister’s spokesman said police would “have our full support” if students in the UK tried to replicate protests at US universities. Rishi Sunak’s spokesman said: “We’ve always been clear that people have a right to peaceful and lawful protest, but clearly, people shouldn’t abuse that right to intimidate others, cause unnecessary disruption.”

The UK protests follow much larger demonstrations on campuses across the US where tent encampments of protesters calling on universities to stop working with Israel, or companies they say support the war on Gaza, have spread.

They are demanding that their schools financially divest from Israel. Divestment means to sell off stock in Israeli companies, or to otherwise drop financial ties.

More than 2,000 demonstrators were arrested last week including around 300 arrests at Columbia University, in New York. 

Last month the Israeli security service Mossad threatened pro-Palestinian protestors on US campuses by tweeting on X: “Facial recognition can determine whether you participated in the pro Hamas protests at the universities. Your jobs and your degrees will be worthless. Your hiring opportunities will be limited.”

This Ferret story was also published in the Sunday National. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

Main image: Aniruddha Chatterjee/iStock

1 comment
  1. At the end of the article we get the lie that these are pto-Hamas protests.

    Repeating a lie frequently does not make it the truth.

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