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Perspectives on privacy in Campus IT

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue July, July 1 - July 31 2001 | BY


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How much information "noise" can we endure and still have room for instruction, study and thinking?

Privacy and the threats it encounters in the digital era now have high visibility in the public press. Citizens and some politicians have begun to learn the extent to which information about individuals gleaned from many sources is avidly collected and analyzed in the commercial world. Concerns about similar activities by government agencies also run high. Networks, computers, databases and software to exploit them have raised the scope, intensity and intrusiveness of this information-gathering. Those same tools have also made it possible to retain the identity of the individuals whose information is swept up: the vastness of this data trove does not imply that the information needs to be aggregated in order to be manageable, as we would have expected before the "information age."

The academic world has been slow to explore its particular stake in the public debate about the values and vulnerabilities of privacy. Since 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Policy Act (FERPA) giving students and families rights of privacy but also information access has occupied most of the attention we have given to issues of privacy. Colleges and universities have also addressed some privacy concerns in their campus computer and network usage rules, particularly with regard to e-mail and the users' obligation not to intrude on the privacy of others' accounts. Privacy is also invoked in the name of security: the need to keep passwords private has more to do with curtailing unauthorized access to resources than the protection of individuals' information (which is why there is so little regard for system administrators' exhortations on the subject).

Some statutes and regulations affecting higher education have had as their object the release of information institutions formerly kept private. Most states now have laws requiring campus crime statistics to be made public and accessible, driven by the perception that colleges and universities were reluctant to let the public know the record on crime. Publication of the salaries of top administrators and faculty is now an annual rite, part of the wider movement to hold educational institutions accountable for their expenditures. The releases of information on crimes and salaries are examples of trends to publicize information previously held confidential and treated as "private."

The bedrock of legal advice colleges and universities have received for their policies regarding the privacy rights of staff, faculty and students has been to minimize expectations of privacy. Most of these policies make the fundamental assertion that information residing in institutionally owned computers and networks belongs to that institution, and that individuals cannot consider that information their own. This position is identical to what prevails for businesses. While faculty and students rarely protest, many of them believe their academic freedom implies rights of privacy despite the policy on institutional ownership of digital information on college or university systems.

Academic Thresholds

There are a number of privacy issues lurking not far beneath the activity of everyday life on campus. Only on occasion do these surface in controversy. They are noteworthy because they suggest that the academic community has privacy issues beyond those recognized in the wider public.

Students have an uneasy relationship with college staff over policies on intellectual property -- as exemplified by the conflict over Napster. The institutions worry about their responsibility (and liability) for copyright observance. Students claim that music files they exchange over the network are private.

Even more sensitive is the tension over pornography. Public-use computers are typically configured so as to erase the trail of Websites visited, pages cached and files downloaded. This practice is aimed more at clearing materials that might offend the next user than at protecting the activity of the first one.

Staff monitoring publicly accessible computers report discomfort with the prevalence of pornographic images. Because network browsing (and downloading and printing) seem private to users but leave traces that others see, there is a constant level of skirmishing over privacy on campus-public computers. Students are encouraged to explore information in the pursuit of education but find that they are more apt to encounter privacy issues in their use of IT than their class notebooks or the books they use in the library.

For that matter, the library's circulation records do constitute a trail of an individual's readings and interests. By tradition and policy, that information is treated as if it were private, but just as bookstores have found their purchase records sought in a few criminal investigations, so too libraries might face that same challenge. Protection of readers' circulation records could be subject to abuse through unauthorized database access if not adequately secured. The history of one's reading was not nearly as easy to log before the advent of online records systems.

Faculty and students in distance education or even just using electronic communications to supplement their classroom-based instruction lose a measure of privacy when their communications are circulated via networks and stored on servers or videotapes. The classroom, even the lecture hall, always had an approximation of privacy because instruction was limited to those actually in the room and had only whatever memory the participants and their notes preserved. E-mail, discussion forums and video cameras substantially extend the reach and memory of the classroom. These capabilities raise questions of intellectual property, but they also lessen the privacy of the participants.

Academic Perspectives

Which aspects of education need to be private? Which are intrinsically public? Are any of these showing signs of change?

The imposition of mass, standardized tests as an educational reform over the past decade has essentially pushed public accountability ahead of privacy in education. The independence that teachers have had to shape curriculum and teaching methods is under assault in the name of higher standards. Whatever their merit, these tests shift the balance of control in education away from the classroom and into the political arena. The public's stake in educational outcomes is cited as the reason for this intrusion.

In higher education, no comparable mandate has occurred. As long as individuals pay their own tuition there will be less pressure for public scrutiny of instruction and evaluation than in public-funded primary and secondary education. Public institutions of higher education have always been subject to at least sporadic scrutiny by state legislatures in proportion to public perception of costs and value.

It might be that the autonomy of faculty in colleges and universities varies inversely with the degree of public scrutiny: the privacy and independence of faculty is stronger when the public is not watching, weaker when the object of their attention. Can anyone remember an educational reform movement that focused on securing more autonomy and individuality for classrooms and their inhabitants?

Certifications are a notable exception to the evaluations conducted by colleges and universities by themselves. These have generally been directed towards the public and treated as different from the grades and degrees conferred by individual institutions of higher education.

If, as some have suggested, higher education evolves to become more like continuing job skills and career support, it stands to reason that faculty will find students, employers and the wider public more interested in examining their practices.

Ultimately, "privacy" is about control, and control of a limited space has been the principle feature of education throughout history. Faculties and institutions of learning have generally weathered intrusions into their classrooms, but the prospect of universities "without walls" and "learning anytime and anywhere" could change that pattern. Already some faculty object to having notes of their class sessions published on the Web. They complain that their lectures and discussion sessions are "private" -- intended for the audience limited to the time and place of the actual class session. As whole courses move to asynchronous and ubiquitous availability, the private space becomes even more attenuated.

Privacy Gone

Most faculty, when asked what drew them into academic careers, will answer that they wanted the time and focus to concentrate on the field of study they adopted. The ivory tower or splendid isolation is thought necessary to conduct that work. In the same vein, faculty complain that committee assignments, student impositions on their time outside class, advisory chores and heavy teaching load intrude on the study that they consider primary.

While the professionalization (and growth) of college and university administration has lessened faculty participation in some tasks, other trends have brought greater pressure on faculty time. Student expectations about faculty availability have increased, driven by a form of consumerism, in which they expect faculty -- their teachers -- to make good the expense of tuition. This idea has been to some extent reinforced by the institution in its efforts to assist students in all aspects of their lives while enrolled. The net effect is that the commitment to students as individuals comes into conflict with desire for sheltered time and concentration on scholarship that brought faculty to the profession in the first place.

The advent of networked information and communication has been a major accelerator of the loss of privacy for faculty. E-mail is frequently cited as a major source of extra time devoted to the support of students' needs. Faculty sometimes say, "With e-mail you are never 'off duty.'" Others will say that they deliberately do not respond to e-mail from administrators or colleagues, because they are unwilling to concede that extension of access to them and their time and attention. E-mail seems to bring a strong presumption that a quick reply is appropriate.

The students' access to networked information increasingly means that faculty no longer make the sole or principal choices of information students use to complete assignments. They frequently say that the Web leads students to bring into their academic work extraneous, unfiltered and unevaluated information -- bringing a kind of "noise" into the field of study. The strength of frustration on this point suggests that the Web's information is all too often unwanted competition for the focus that faculty are trying to accomplish with their students.

Focus is further eroded by chiming wristwatches, Palm Pilots and cell phones. Faculty in Japan, where cell phones are the leading form of connection to the Internet, complain that students distract themselves by surfing, reading e-mail or playing games during class sessions.

These intrusions are not just inconveniences, they are each to some extent a challenge to the quiet and control -- privacy -- that is necessary for education. Most of us are only obliquely aware of these problems, involved as we are in the ever-increasing noise, speed and distractions around us. The overload of information is perhaps in itself a significant threat to the way we conduct education. Whether we can modify our methods to cope with it or to keep the disruptive qualities of the flow of constant information at bay remains to be seen.

And the Students?

Recorded music, television, the Web, the telephone -- their lives are too busy also in many respects, at least for the concentration and focus we presume necessary for study. Most of them now have grown up with these distractions and seem unaware of them as impediments to their school work. Even allowing for differences in the adaptations each generation makes to academic life, the competition for students' attention appears very strong from these information sources.

Many students also work very long hours at paid jobs, not unusually almost 40 hours, even if they are full-time students and in residence on or near campus. That time commitment, which is often necessary, of course, to pay tuition and costs, detracts from the privacy we traditionally think necessary for education -- the solitude and shelter for extended thought.

Privacy is under assault in many aspects of daily life. In some cases it is a matter of annoyance, in others we adapt reasonably well. But for instruction, study, and thinking we need to ask some sharper questions about the amount of competition those activities can endure from the ubiquitous flood of information, to say nothing of the "noise."

Thomas Warger ( is managing editor of The Edutech Report: The Education Technology Newsletter for Faculty and Administrators. See for information about EDUTECH International.


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