In a recent interview for The Brandeis Hoot I had the pleasure of conducting with John Unsworth, the Chief Information Officer (among other positions) of the university, we touched upon the topics of fair use and protection of student data. With all of the data everyone leaves in their 21st-century wake, controversies regarding the use of this data is the new normal. The number of contact points an individual may have with a data collecting application of one kind or another per day is huge.
Campus card readers collect data regarding when, where and for what we swipe. Our computers and mobile devices log what websites we visit, and the people who give us access to the Internet (Brandeis) can collect information on these websites and the downloads we make.
Furthermore, there’s data that doesn’t exist in the real time, yet reflects heavily on who we are as individuals. Lists of courses we’ve taken, grading information, disciplinary and medical reports, class attendance, meeting schedules, club enrollment, email addresses, phone numbers, home addresses, financial records and so on and so on.
All of this data is available online, and all of this data is vulnerable under the right circumstances. As a major university, there are hundreds of thousands of cyberattacks conducted on the school’s networks monthly. Some of these attacks are no doubt aimed at accessing this sensitive information. The university needs to continue making the necessary investments in protecting this data from thieves who wish to take it.
Another point of consideration in data protection, however, is how the university should protect our data from themselves, and when it is appropriate to harness it for the betterment of our education. With such vast amounts of data available to the various administrators, faculty, staff and students here at Brandeis, there is great possibility for use and misuse of it alike.
Privacy concerns of course always pervade when talking about data use. Should university staff be reading our emails and Internet histories? No, and they don’t read our emails and Internet histories either. It needs to be stated, though, that some would raise it as a suggestion. They would employ the phrase: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.” This is a misguided belief. Privacy is not something that can be so utterly and completely surrendered just because one believes that they have nothing to hide. Being able to live one’s life without having someone arbitrarily looking over one’s shoulder is more than a desire of others giving one the benefit of the doubt—it’s an issue of lending respect to human nature and human decency.
But some privacy needs to be given up in our society for convenience and safety. The safety aspect is an issue that’s battled out every day in the Capitol and in the courts. Convenience, however, is applicable every day in our lives. Anyone who’s connected to a computer has experienced being asked to sign in to an app with a Facebook account, or to enter an email address for a coupon. How can the university integrate its digital services and its metadata effectively to bring us better services without disrespecting our privacy rights? It’s a conversation that needs to be had.
The power of 21st-century data collection and digital utility integration can be immensely valuable if used properly. If our data were used well, the improvement to digital services could be valuable. We as students could research smarter, utilize services more effectively and find ourselves more prepared to handle an integrated world coming from what is still a university lodged somewhat in the past.
The use of our data is a long overdue conversation that needs to be had, and I urge LTS, the administration and all interested students to start a dialogue around the issue.