The Costs of Privacy

In November 2012, in response to threats of expulsion from John Jay Science & Engineering Academy on account of her refusal to wear a mandatory RFID badge, Andrea Hernandez filed a law suit against San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District. If she continues to refuse even to wear an RFID-disabled badge–an accommodation sanctioned by a federal district judge who ruled against her–Hernandez will be placed in Taft High School beginning in September 2013, the public school to which she would normally be assigned.

In refusing to wear even an RFID-disabled badge, Hernandez’s case seems to have lost its ‘bite’ (it’s difficult to justify her appeal to religious freedom once tracking mechanisms are disabled). In spite of the fact that her concerns were ultimately voiced in terms of an interest in preserving religious freedom, however, the case nonetheless draws attention to the potential costs of privacy.

As elite institutions increasingly adopt comprehensive analytics programs that require students to give up their privacy in exchange for student success, are they also strongly contributing to a culture in which privacy is no longer valued? A robust analytics program requires every student to opt-in (i.e. students are not given the option of opting out). If analytics programs are seen as effective mechanisms to increase the chances of student success, and such programs are effective only to the extent that they gather data that is representative of their entire student body, and, as such, consenting to being tracked is made a condition of enrollment at the most elite universities (universities with the resources necessary to build and sustain such programs), then students must ask what it is that they value more: an education at a world-class institution (and all of the job prospects and other opportunity that such an education affords), or the ability to proverbially click ‘do not track.’ My suspicion is that, if explicitly given the choice, the vast majority of students are willing to give up the latter for the former, a symptom of our growing acceptance of, and complacence toward, issues of electronic privacy, but perhaps also an indication that a willingness to sacrifice privacy for success increasingly forms a key part of the ‘hidden curriculum.’

Erasing Privacy

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user Alan Cleaver]

(Interestingly, in addition to gathering data from Learning Management and operational systems, universities also regularly collect data from student id card swipes. This data can easily be mobilized as part of a kind of ‘card-swipe surveillance’ program, as in fact has been done by Matthew S. Pittinksy (co-founder of Blackboard) at Arizona State University. According to Pittinsky, tracking card-swipe behavior can allow an institution to effectively map a student’s friend group, determine their level of social integration, and predict their chances of attrition.)