Recent events in the arena of personal data and social media have awoken the public’s fear that precious online records are being exploited without consent, which, while understandable, is ultimately ill-founded, as everyone essentially consents to their data being sold to private companies.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels published a column titled “Someone is watching you” in The Washington Post (which can also be read on The Exponent’s website) in which he details a few kinds of data that Purdue collects from students, how that data is utilized and why the use of private information should be watched carefully as society progresses.
Daniels makes several good points that highlight the many benefits of the theory known as “Big Data.”
Although many people fear that they’ve been illegally taken advantage of, in reality, much data is accounted for in predetermined contracts that have just been forgotten about by most users.
The data collected by Purdue University is used in the interests of the students and is pretty easily accessible to all on a summarized scale. A visit to Purdue’s Data Digest webpage shows a wealth of information that many students may not already know about, such as student enrollment broken down by college, major, gender, race, and country, county or state of origin.
That’s just one example of how much student enrollment data is available, and the Data Digest provides much more information for the curious: student migration, tuition and fees, student-to-faculty ratios, faculty retention and turnover, research and sponsored programs, degree counts and more are available online.
Perhaps more well-known, or at least better advertised, is Forecast, Purdue’s online application tracking students’ GPAs, location, class schedule and other academic details. By keeping track of where a student swipes their Purdue ID — dining courts, libraries, university facilities and shops — and when and where they connect to the University’s internet, Purdue can essentially track its students’ entire lives while on campus.
The information is available to each individual student, and an opt-out option mentioned by Daniels does exist; however, that simply removes a person’s ability to access their individual data, not the University’s ability to collect said data.
As Daniels advocates, this data collection shouldn’t seem concerning, as the information is being used to help students, not to deceive, trick or otherwise profit off of them.
By being able to show correlations between time spent in libraries, healthy social lives and high GPAs, Purdue can better understand how to benefit its students, whether that be through recommending tutors at crucial points in the academic year or suggesting study habits throughout the duration of a course.
Companies tracking our data should signify not the end of our privacy, but the beginning of an era when students can receive more personalized aid as they study in college.
Even though students ultimately benefit from Purdue’s data collection, some may still argue that they never gave their express consent to be tracked or monitored and should get to have a say on how their information is handled.
If we think of students as “customers,” however, seeing as how we pay large sums of money for the “service” of a quality education, our explicit consent matters little. As customers, we employ the use of a separate entity for convenience, and therefore give our tacit consent to the University. By engaging with a business for a technically nonessential good such as college, we agree to the terms and conditions that the University sets, regardless of how we feel about them.
Certainly, every business that utilizes its customers’ information should be held accountable to ensure transparency with its users. As long as the use of user data is somehow referenced in a provided contract, though, businesses may do whatever they wish with it.
Those upset that companies like Facebook, Yahoo and other social media giants are misusing personal information forget that social media isn’t some necessity like food or water that’s been declared a universal right by the United Nations. There’s no use in complaining about some evil company “stealing” your data and selling it if you’re the one who signed up for an online service to look at cute cat pictures without reading the contract in the first place.
Surely, there are unethical ways to handle the data of millions of people. Lying, falsifying contract terms or otherwise explicitly deceiving customers is wrong and illegal.
But simply manipulating users’ screens by using data collected from them via a business they agreed to be a part of is perfectly fine, and does not warrant the flurry of attention that recent events have garnered.
Users should learn to finely examine whatever contracts they sign off on; otherwise they implicitly agree to whatever happens as a result of their compliance.