Earlier this month, students were made aware of a shocking breach of privacy. Acting university president Mark Wrighton announced in an email that GW was tracking the movements and whereabouts of students without their knowledge or consent.
It’s obvious that this is an outrageous violation of student privacy – both in a moral sense and based on GW’s own data collection guidelines. Although Wrighton did the right thing in revealing the existence of this program, the students still need more explanation as to how it could have happened in the first place. In addition, the University must put in place ironclad guardrails against any future clandestine surveillance of students.
Beyond the title, this story gets weirder and weirder. According to Wrighton, personal details such as student names were removed from the data, which was then aggregated. But personal information — like a student’s gender, residence or involvement in Greek life — remained attached to each data point, the faculty said at a faculty senate meeting last Friday. Degree Analytics, the company that performed the analysis, even touted how it offers colleges the ability to track individual student movements around campus.
Although GW apparently did not analyze individualized data, they had the ability to do so, and students are entitled to more answers about the decision-making process behind this pilot.
When it comes to who exactly oversaw this effort, there are even more unknowns. Pandemic-era budget issues have led CFO Mark Diaz to put greater scrutiny on GW’s tech offices – but neither Diaz nor university spokesperson Crystal Nosal would comment on who approved. the project.
While Wrighton Noted that the project was intended to collect data that would be useful to the Security and Facilities Division, that was the extent of the detail provided on the motive. It might have been reasonable for the University to want to track building occupancy on campus in the process of reopening a campus in the age of the pandemic, but even that seems unlikely – Wrighton said that the University had weighed a similar program in 2019, before COVID-19 hit.
Wrighton, for his part, seemed to gently, and rightly, throw his predecessor under the bus, noting in his email that the program started and ended before he took over from former university president Thomas LeBlanc. . Wrighton’s hands appear to be clear on this – he has apologized for the breach of privacy and pledged to set up a committee to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Now all eyes are on him to form this committee and ensure his words are matched by deeds.
The most crucial lesson the University should have learned from this incident is that communication and transparency are of the utmost importance. Nowadays, each of us is hunted down. The proof is in the pudding thanks to technologies like Spotify Wrapped, Apple Keychain and even TikTok. But what the University needs to do is be upfront about what data it tracks and why it needs to track it. If they do, students will be aware of how they are being tracked and will raise specific questions about the data if they wish.
In his response to the incident, Wrighton said officials would not conduct a “similar project” in the future without establishing a committee of students, faculty and staff to develop a set of policies, as well as an “academic position” on the use of GW community data. It’s a good sign that Wrighton is considering including students and faculty with the admins, as it eliminates any idea that the admins are trying to hide their activities from the GW community.
But there are still unknowns about Wrighton’s plan to fix this problem. Policy must take students’ right to privacy seriously and adopt solutions that students can see every day and know about.
Presumably, student data will still be collected. But the committee should find ways to collect the minimum data necessary to optimize the quality of life on campus. Before the digital age, institutions relied on interactions with students to get their feedback on campus facilities and ways to improve their life at university. The University should continue to take the temperature of students and faculty members when collecting data.
If the University needs to collect certain data to know how many students occupy a certain facility on average or what are the peak times when students use GWireless, it must do so by first obtaining the consent of the students. By adding a pop-up each time students log into GWireless or requiring students to complete a data privacy consent form prior to their first year at GW, the University can collect certain data while keeping students informed. .
Everyone agrees that the University should not track students without their knowledge or consent. But the fact that this project was sketchy is about the only thing everyone is on the same page about – the GW community needs more details on how it happened and who it was. authorized.
The Editorial Board is made up of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the Newsroom. This week’s Staff Editorial was written by Editor-in-Chief Andrew Sugrue and Editor-in-Chief Shreeya Aranake, based on discussions with Culture Editor Anna Boone, Sports Editor Nuria Diaz, Editor-in-Chief Grace Miller and managing editor Jaden DiMauro.