Colleges Must Educate Students About Commercial Uses of Personal Data

To the Editor:

It stands to reason that a for-profit consultant would advocate that higher education facilitate student consent to commercial applications “Muy Loco Parentis: How ‘Freakouts’ Over Student Privacy Hamper Innovation,The Chronicle, February 2). There is money to be made in it. Just ask Google about its scanning of student emails, almost certainly from sometime in 2010 when they used the OneBox technology on all mail until April 30, 2014, when they asserted they had removed that technology from student mail due to rising pressures from government to quit the practice. If the leader in the use of profiling backed down, then that would leave for-profit entities that want to use student data for commercial purposes with only one legitimate choice: Get the students to consent to their own profiling.

Therein lies the difference between “consent,” as in a checked box, and “informed consent,” which in this case would take a course in information literacy for an upper-level high-school or college student to understand. I would not suggest that Mr. Feldstein’s client write the tutorial. But higher education must. It owes an obligation to educate students about the commodification of personal data and the myriad unforeseen consequences of profiling. And in the meantime, Mr. Feldstein’s sleight of hand in this article needs to be clarified. For enterprise contracts, the ones wherein the institution makes the decision for the students, there is no excuse for an institution to provide this kind of consent. Ferpa allows institutions to make enterprise decisions on behalf of parents and students, but not to violate Ferpa in the process. In the selection, contracting, and implementation process, higher education must remain vigilant and steadfast in assuring that vendors act in students’ interests and not the vendor’s. In a sentence, that means that the vendor cannot use personal information of students for its own commercial purposes.

Good privacy reasons motivated legislators to pass Ferpa more than thirty years ago. Those reasons at their core: protecting young people from the prying eyes of both government and now industry remain constant. Higher education, which seeks truth, should not allow “technology” to act as a smokescreen to what is really going on behind the curtain of such claims in the name of student freedom. Vendor motivations for profit hardly qualify as freedom for a student.

Tracy Mitrano
Academic Dean of the University of Massachusetts Cybersecurity Certificate Programs
Amherst, Mass.

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