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Communications of the ACM

Computing ethics

The Temptation of Data-Enabled Surveillance

student ID in jeans back pocket

Credit: Delpixel

There is increasing concern about "surveillance capitalism," whereby for-profit companies generate value from data, while individuals are unable to resist.9 Non-profits using data-enabled surveillance receive less attention. Higher education institutions (HEIs) have embraced data analytics, but the wide latitude that private, profit-oriented enterprises have to collect data is inappropriate. HEIs have a fiduciary relationship to students, not a narrowly transactional one (see Jones et al.7). They are responsible for facets of student life beyond education. In addition to classrooms, learning management systems, and libraries, HEIs manage dormitories, gyms, dining halls, health facilities, career advising, police departments, and student employment.

HEIs collect and use student data in all of these domains, ostensibly to understand learner behaviors and contexts, improve learning outcomes, and increase institutional efficiency through "learning analytics" (LA). ID card swipes and Wi-Fi log-ins can track student location, class attendance, use of campus facilities, eating habits, and friend groups. Course management systems capture how students interact with readings, video lectures, and discussion boards. Application materials provide demographic information. This data is used to identify students needing support, predict enrollment demands, and target recruiting efforts.


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