Pictures of 2,000 Duke students were available on public database accessed in China

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Pictures of about 2,000 Duke University students are in a recently-deleted database whose users included Chinese military academies.

A Duke vice president tells CBS 17 the university removed data from its website on April 25 which include thousands of images taken of people at the Duke Chapel Quad on March 14, 2014. The photos were part of a computer science doctoral student Ergys Ristani’s research into tracking movements of multiple people with multiple cameras.

As part of Ristani’s publication process for his Duke Multi-Target, Multi-Camera (MTMC) project, the data sets and images were posted on the university’s website and made available to other researchers.

“The study had been approved to capture images of individuals in a defined indoor space, and the resulting data was supposed to be available to other researchers only upon request, not through an open website,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations.

Rather than record people indoors, as approved by the Institutional Review Board, Ristani’s surveillance included eight cameras mounted around a high-traffic quadrangle near the university’s chapel and Page Auditorium. Signs posted in the area provided notice of the surveillance.

Each camera captured nearly 90 minutes of video. The footage supported studies of software with person recognition technology, and the inter-connected cameras allowed researchers to test trackers from one zone to the next.

“The data were then placed on a public website. As a result of this significant deviation from the approved protocol, the public website was taken down on April 25, 2019, and there are no plans to reopen it,” Schoenfeld said.

MegaPixels, an independent research project that reviews face recognition image datasets and research, assessed the MTMC project and its use by researchers around the world. MegaPixels found dozens of reports of the Duke data sets use, nearly half of which came from China. Two are from Chinese military academies, while many others are from private companies.

Duke said it does not know the ways in which the data was used, or to what extent.

The pages which once shared the data now have error messages or fail to load. Ristani’s papers and doctoral dissertation remain on the Duke University website.

CBS 17 reached out to Duke University for comment and received the following statement:

News media reports in April alerted the university to existence of a database of images from a faculty research project that was available on the Duke website.  The university immediately undertook a review of the situation and determined that the data on the website was neither collected nor made available to the public consistent with the terms of the study that had been approved by the Institutional Review Board, which oversees all research at Duke that involves human subjects.  The study had been approved to capture images of individuals in a defined indoor space, and the resulting data was supposed to be available to other researchers only upon request, not through an open website.  However, it appears that images of about 2,700 individuals were instead gathered from an outdoor area during an 85-minute period on a single day in March 2014, and the data were then placed on a public website. As a result of this significant deviation from the approved protocol, the public website was taken down on April 25, 2019, and there are no plans to reopen it.”

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations

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