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Surveilling surveillance

June 16, 2021
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Over the past month, I’ve been engaging with my colleagues through a workshop on privacy and surveillance in academic libraries and higher education. It’s been eye-opening to say the least. I came to the workshop with my own strong opinions against plagiarism detection software like TurnItIn, a commonly deployed tool that subjects students to surveillance and requires perpetual, uncompensated licensing of any uploaded student work to a for-profit company as part of its use. But in the months of remote learning necessitated by the pandemic, student surveillance has only become more intense. More students and faculty are speaking out, but for some, they’ve already faced intense consequences of flawed surveillance tools and poorly communicated rollouts.

We heard many concerns as classes moved to Zoom about the issues that constant video monitoring of students could cause for those who have precarious living situations or who face other challenges that could be exacerbated by constantly sharing a video feed of their location that could be easily recorded or screen captured. The need to monitor students as much as possible stemmed from concern that students would withdraw during remote learning and their grades would suffer, but also from the same handwringing that usually brings plagiarism detection software into play — that students would be emboldened to cheat if not properly surveilled.

As has been the case with many of the quick implementations of surveillance technologies in higher education, problems quickly arose, gaining headlines in higher-ed focused publications and sometimes spilling over into flagship mainstream news publications like the New York Times. Just this week, Dartmouth dropped an academic integrity violation investigation against 7 students based on flawed data gathered by Canvas, the school’s learning management system (LMS). Ten other students are facing expulsion, suspension, or course failures, and it’s entirely possible they didn’t do anything wrong. It might be surprising to students how much data is gathered and tracked about them by their LMS; it likely further surprised the Dartmouth students that the school would use a tool that isn’t designed to prevent cheating to accuse them of academic integrity violations.

Other tools that are specifically designed to prevent or root out cheating have had myriad other problems exposed — students with disabilities might be flagged for cheating because their movements may be deemed suspicious by the system; nonwhite students might be “invisible” to the software tasked with monitoring them; and everyone’s data vacuumed up by contracted companies could be at serious risk.

It’s not just cheating panics that could expose students to surveillance on campus. Many other initiatives with lofty and perhaps admirable goals such as student success, campus safety, and preventing the spread of COVID-19 are gobbling up data while those being monitored may be unaware of what is collected, why it is gathered, how it is stored, how it is used, who it may be sold to, and if/when it is deleted.

You may ask yourself — what does any of this have to do with the library, though? User privacy and intellectual freedom are central to library values and are enshrined in the Library Bill of Rights. We should be engaging more with privacy conversations at our campuses, or starting them if they are not already occurring. At Penn State, librarians have been educating students about privacy and digital wellness for years. At some schools, libraries may be in the position to influence software purchases or licensing, and to engage key stakeholders in protecting user privacy. Your library may also have some practices that could erode user privacy, such as intense data collection programs that fuel student success initiatives or maintaining relatively easy-to-access user checkout records. Our database vendors might also be selling or sharing our user data with third parties.

Our opening keynote speaker Symphony Bruce encouraged us to build a team that investigates privacy issues on campus and keeps the conversation going, and closing keynote speaker Audrey Watters asked us to think about how to build support and trust with our students by stepping back from surveillance tools. Our workshop gave us the time and space to share and consider the many privacy issues that come up at our campuses and the university overall, and how we as information professionals can engage in educating about and advocating for privacy. My biggest takeaway, aside from being surprised about some of the data collected about me (did you know your browser knows how much battery your device has left?; certainly not the creepiest thing collected, but surprising nonetheless), is that tackling privacy in a team is key — there is so much nuance to contend with and so many perspectives to consider.

As we head back toward in-person environments and work to make up any ground lost during the pandemic, we may feel more pressure than ever to collect data or to continue to use monitoring tools from remote instruction — we need to stop and ask why. Gather your team and get the landscape of your institution. What can you do to protect privacy today?

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