Jan 26 2022

Why Students Should Be Involved in Data Privacy Conversations

Students can be valuable resources for higher education data administrators.

As the University of California San Diego’s inaugural chief privacy officer, I’m responsible for ensuring that the university handles all personal data — whether student, employee or research data — responsibly and ethically. We live in a new world where Big Data and data-driven and data-informed decisions influence everything, and our data practices have a significant impact on privacy in ways they didn’t just 10 years ago.

As higher ed practices become more data-driven and our systems become more interconnected with vendor systems, the university privacy office can be a vital partner in ensuring ethical data practices, building up a university’s data and IT governance infrastructure, and increasing trust, particularly with students.

A privacy office has many important functions. One that I find rewarding and valuable is engaging with our students and ensuring they have the tools and resources to understand and exercise their privacy rights. We listen to students, educate them on privacy matters more broadly and include them in university decisions that affect them.

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Students Seek Agency in Data Collection Practices

Many students don’t think about how their universities are using their data, which is in line with the general public’s attention to data collection and use. The public’s understanding of privacy and personal data use is limited to basic information about social media companies, government agencies and law enforcement. Most don’t understand the intricacies of data privacy and don’t tend to think about how other institutions, such as their universities, use their personal information.

Today’s traditional students were born and raised in a time of massive and intrusive data collection; they’ve never known a world without it. Because of this, they often feel helpless to challenge data practices, particularly when they don’t have a choice if they want to avail themselves of services.

When they don’t feel that their concerns will be heard, students disengage from the dialogue, even though research shows students do want agency over their data. According to the Future of Privacy Forum’s “College Students’ Attitudes Toward Data Privacy” report, 71 percent of survey respondents believe they should have the right to control how their colleges use data about them.

To encourage students to put aside their feelings of helplessness and engage, the UC San Diego campus privacy office has an ongoing dialogue with our students. We meet with student leaders regularly and present to our student governments annually. We reach out to students so they are aware of the resources available to them.

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Student Voices Help Guide Privacy Decision-Making

Student voices are integral to shaping our privacy practices at UC San Diego. We involve student leadership in all committees and governance structures that the privacy office leads. Students provide a valuable perspective to data privacy conversations that the university might miss.

As administrators, sometimes we’re removed from the student lifestyle and forget what it’s like. It is helpful to hear input from those who are most impacted by the decisions we’re making. Our student leaders aren’t shy about voicing their concerns, and soon enough, a dialogue develops between the students and university administrators.

A recent example shows how student voices helped our campus meet its goals during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Student input was instrumental in the success of a new daily wellness program.

Every day, students were asked to log in and complete a wellness questionnaire, which collects sensitive personal information. Our students told us they were concerned with data use and access and ease of navigation. We listened to our students by improving ease of use and publishing an easy-to-understand privacy notice.

Having students involved in this process helped us realize that if we’re going to make them do something every day, we should make it as easy as possible for them to comply, while also giving them information about how we will use their personal data. Because of their participation, compliance with the requirement increased and we had a safer campus.

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Embedding Privacy into the Educational Experience

At UC San Diego, we talk to our students about the importance of privacy for healthy democracies, social movements, and freedom of speech and research. After all, data privacy is a civil liberties and civil rights issue.

We discuss the impact of the current data collection regime on our future and make clear that this generation of students holds the key to ensuring our data practices are equitable, beneficial and sustainable. We offer a free monthly Privacy 101 Workshop that dissects these issues in greater detail.

We also encourage embedding privacy lessons into the classroom as an effective way to teach students about their rights and responsibilities.

The University of California has also provided language for instructors to include in their syllabi so students can understand how their privacy is impacted in the classroom. Our privacy office staffers also guest lecture for several courses.

It’s important for our privacy program at UC San Diego to have an ongoing dialogue with students, educate them on the impact of current data practices on society and involve them in our governance structure. We have been able to better serve the university’s education and service missions by including students in every part of our program.

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