Jan 09 2019

As Colleges Embrace Smart Assistants, Privacy Questions Arise

Institutions work to protect student data while delivering a personalized user experience.

“Alexa, what’s happening on campus today?”

Students across the U.S. can now ask this question to university-issued smart assistants such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home. Some of the earliest colleges to try them out were Northeastern University, Arizona State and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Now, institutions such as Saint Louis University, the University of Oklahoma and Park University have them too.

WATCH: See how universities are investing in Alexa on campus.

Institutions Seek to Increase Both Privacy and Personalization

So far, most of the device deployments serve to relay public information and perform standard services. But administrators are hoping that, in the future, student-centered, custom programming will personalize the experience.

It’s that personalization, though, that could potentially expose users to security risks. For example, a student may ask, “What’s my grade in this class?” Unless the device can verify who’s asking the question, the device could give an answer to just about anybody.

Smart assistant privacy issues have made national news. Although both Google Home and Amazon Echo have privacy settings so the devices don’t “listen” to random conversations, experts and consumer protection groups say the technology can mishear words and “wake up,” performing actions, storing data and becoming a target for cybercriminals.

In an interview with Philadelphia’s ABC-6, Drexel University Professor Rob D’Ovidio said that, while he didn’t want to demonize the devices, he wanted consumers to be aware of how companies treat their data.

“The assumption that we have an expectation of privacy is going to be a bad assumption,” said D’Ovidio in the segment.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how to protect your campus as emerging tech becomes more commonplace.

Northeastern Smart Assistant Pilot Incorporates Strict Privacy Policy

To help address these concerns, Northeastern is working with startup n-Powered to make smart assistants more helpful and prioritize privacy at the same time.

In a pilot program, n-Powered created a custom Amazon Echo Dot application called Husky Helper (named after the university’s mascot) to help students gain access to more personal information. Then, they had to pool together the university’s data.

“If you are a student, you have financial aid information in one system and classes and academic coaches in another system and transcripts in another system,” co-founder Somen Saha, the former director of IT at Northeastern University, told the publication Rhode Island Inno. “Something has to connect all of these things to you.”

With access to personalized data, EdScoop reports that students can ask Alexa to do something specific, such as set an alarm before their first class in the morning. They can also ask, “Why is there a hold on my account?” and “How much money is left on my meal plan?”

Because Husky Helper was designed with a strict privacy policy, it does not collect information or share it with third parties, including Google or Amazon. In addition, all data in the system is stored with encryption. Students can even choose to opt out of using Husky Helper altogether, or choose not to share specific information, like financial aid data, according to an article on the Northeastern news site.

Applications like Husky Helper could help other university smart assistant programs become more valuable to students in the future, while protecting privacy. Madeleine Estabrook, vice president for student affairs at Northeastern, told EdScoop she has high hopes. 

“We know that what works is making sure that our students feel they belong,” she said. “The more we can engage them where they are, the better experience they have. That’s exactly what this does.”

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