The Thing We Carry

When Miko McGinty was a senior at Yale in 1993, she could get in anywhere. Most students on campus lugged around three keys at all times (one for their college’s courtyard, one for their entryway, and one for their suite), and still had to wait outside the gates of other residential colleges until a sympathetic student let them in. McGinty made no such sacrifices: as the owner of a master key passed down from an upperclassman friend, she was one of only about ten students she knew who could get through every college gate on campus.

Yale’s administration wasn’t particularly excited about the idea of students having unrestricted access to buildings, so some time during McGinty’s junior year, she says, the University changed locks on campus to render the master keys ineffective. Within a few hours, though, a student had figured out how to alter the old key to fit the new lock. The secret to retaining access quickly spread by word-of-mouth. Soon, McGinty says, she heard from a friend: “Oh yeah, you take your gate key and line it up with your master key—the fourth knob on the master key is gonna be wrong, and if you file it down it’ll work.”

More than any navy sweatshirt, an ID is the physical manifestation of belonging at Yale.

Although it still exists somewhere (she passed it down to a Jonathan Edwards freshman when she graduated), McGinty’s master key is now useless. In 1994, Yale began transitioning to the current swipe card system for building entry. The mid-nineteen-nineties were a tense time for Yale–New Haven relations, particularly following the high-profile murder of Christian Prince, a student who was shot and killed on Hillhouse Avenue one February night in 1991. Across campus, security amped up. ID cards, scanned by electronic readers stationed at building entrances, were implemented as a safer, streamlined, and thoroughly modern alternative to keys. Each one only cost $7 to manufacture, and electronic card readers cost a few thousand dollars apiece, according to a 1998 Yale Herald article in praise of the new “3.3″x2.1″x0.02”” powerhouse.” IDs were less to carry, easy to deactivate if lost, fumble-free for the student coming off the street late at night. And most importantly, perhaps, they were almost impossible to alter.

As more buildings installed readers over the years, the potential access capabilities of the card expanded. In 2016, a Yale ID has the technological power to get you into most buildings on campus, pay for your food and books, and help buy you a drink (if you’re of age). More than any navy sweatshirt, an ID is the physical manifestation of belonging at Yale. And it now serves a tripartite purpose: It marks its holder as a member of this community, gives her the ability to physically participate in it, and, theoretically, keeps her safe from outside threats. But more than twenty years into the practice, we take our cards for granted. We forget that they symbolize more than the ability to open a gate, and we forget what we agree to by carrying a dinky piece of plastic in our back pockets.

Officially, the communities you’re a part of at Yale determine your access to the buildings on campus. The ID Card Center, a four-person office that operates under the College’s Security Systems, organizes university personnel into groups who either receive or are denied access to a particular door and links that information to each individual’s card. When you hold your ID near the reader of any given building on campus, the chip inside the card sends out a number that identifies you. The reader runs that number through a program that checks which groups you fall under, then sends a decision via LED light, red or green.

Some buildings, like libraries or academic buildings, are open to anyone with a Yale ID, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. With the exception of fellows in a particular college, professors can only get into the buildings that house their offices and classrooms, and college staff such as dining hall or facilities workers only have access to buildings in the colleges where they work. The courtyards of residential colleges are accessible to all undergraduate students, but entryways are only open for students of that college. In an email, George Hines, Director of Security Systems for the University, explained that the ID center’s workers can also set time boundaries on access for a particular entrance or person. Such requests are handled on an individual basis.

Stuart Teal has served as Program Manager of Yale’s Information Technology Services since graduating from Yale in 2014. Under the ID system, he explained, people should only be able to get into places they need to be for University business—but there are loopholes.

Adam Sokol, a senior in Saybrook College, received access to all entryways on campus when he worked for the Office of Sustainability on Spring Salvage in 2015. That was intentional: His job consisted of going into all residential colleges to pick up books and furniture that students left behind and compiling it to be reclaimed by new owners. But even after the Salvage, as spring turned into summer and most students left campus, Sokol found he still had access to entryways across campus. And the access stuck around more than a year. It was only this fall that he found he can no longer get into some entryways on campus (though he still has access to more than he technically should).

“It wasn’t like I had access to the room where Yale keeps its millions of dollars,” he said. “It was just the entryways. It’s just a little convenient.”

Inside the college gates, which particular ones you can open can feel both arbitrary and unimportant. Once you’re in, you’re in.

Technology glitches are to be expected. But such seemingly random extensions of access also make sense in a more abstract way: Being a student at Yale both literally and metaphorically opens doors. Inside the college gates, which particular ones you can open can feel both arbitrary and unimportant. Once you’re in, you’re in.

In this way, a Yale ID is no different from a key—either you have one or you don’t. But as a form of identification, the swipe card adds a new dimension. You have access because of who you are. And that’s a political assertion, especially at a university with a $25.5 billion endowment in a city where, as of 2015, more than one in every four residents lives below the poverty line.

Some campus spaces—open areas like Cross Campus, select libraries during certain hours, the Yale University Art Gallery—are available to the public, but, without an ID, New Haven residents are otherwise excluded from campus. Partly, this is simply a pragmatic consideration: Yale is a private institution embedded in a city. But Architecture professor Elihu Rubin, who specializes in the social life of urban space, argues that swipe cards can also symbolically reinforce of the barriers between New Haven and Yale.

“Both Yale students and Yale faculty are people with a lot of mobility and access in the world at large. And the distribution of key card privileges reinforces that system of access. But there are a lot of people in New Haven who have a lot less mobility and access, both physical and social,” he said.

Alicia Schmidt Camacho, a professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration and American Studies, works with the New Haven organization Junta for Progressive Action. She said she understands the need for security, and thinks access to physical campus space is less important than other areas in which Yale could improve its relationship to the city, such as its hiring practices and downtown development strategy.

But, she said, part of being a community means you can trust that people are looking out for you. The IDs are symbolic of that dynamic—they mark Yale students as the University’s top concern and all others as potential threats. In asserting its responsibility to protect Yale students, however, the University also gains the power to keep track of them.

In September 2009, 24-year-old medical student Annie Le went missing days before she was supposed to be married. In the attempts to find her, Yale Police looked to the locational data provided by her ID. The last campus building she’d entered was 10 Amistad St., where she worked in a lab. They then checked security footage from that building, which showed her entering at 10 a.m. and never leaving. After a thorough search, police found Le’s body hidden inside a wall. Swipe card information was also crucial to identifying the murderer. Only certain IDs were able to access the lab, and looking at the database to figure out who had that permission eventually led police to their suspect. Lab technician Raymond Clark III pled guilty to strangling Le and was sentenced to forty-four years in prison.

Locational data doesn’t usually yield such useful or sinister information. In fact, most of the time, it’s not used at all. George Hines assured me over email that students are not being “tracked.” Swipe cards fall under the University’s acceptable use policy for technology, which states that University officials can access information about University personnel without their permission only when identifying or fixing system problems, when investigating a potential violation of the law, or to carry out essential University business functions. But the more specific information about who gets that access, what scenarios fit those criteria, and how those data could be used to benefit the University, is less publicized.

After emailing Hines multiple times without response last month, I went to the Yale Security Department’s office, tucked away in a corner next to the parking garage by Yale Health. The door was locked and I had to tap on the window to get the attention of one of the men sitting by a series of computer monitors projecting footage from around campus. After a moment, somebody let me in and led me down a long hallway to Hines’ office. He was friendly and apologized for not answering my emails, but he was clear—at security, they don’t like to talk about security. When I asked to visit the access office and talk to the people who work there, he offered to get responses to my questions from the PR team instead. Those responses, when they came over email, were chipper but vague: “an individual’s card is programmed with appropriate access, based on their role at the university.”

Teal said it’s not ironic that the “access” people are so hard to access. Their job is to protect the University and the people associated with it, which requires protecting the information about how they do so. But such layers of obscurity make you wonder: If we can’t access the information being collected about us, then what do we actually have access to?

He was friendly and apologized for not answering my emails, but he was clear—at security, they don’t like to talk about security.

“[We] know that privacy is a thing that a lot of people care about,” said Teal, “and unfortunately, at the moment, the balance between letting you know how things work and not letting you know how things work is leaning towards not letting you know how things work until we know it’s safe to let you know how things work.”

Still, no matter how well they guard their methods, Yale security is not the final arbiter of campus access—and they know it. “We have strict controls in place for residential colleges but, like any access control system, or physical key, the system only works if people abide by it,” Hines wrote.

You can’t file down the tooth of a master key anymore. But once you’re granted access to a place like Yale, you can get in almost anywhere, whether entry is doled out by four workers in an enigmatic office or by a student holding open the gate on Elm Street. Being “in,” though, also means buying in—accepting membership in this community and all that comes with it. When we absent-mindedly bump our pockets against the card readers and wait for the IDs to do their magic, it’s worth thinking about what, exactly, the ensuing green light means.