One afternoon during my fourth-year internship, a colleague and I were engaged in a conversation discussing the implications of digital privacy. Before departing ways, my co-worker repeated an all-too popular phrase, “If I have nothing to hide then I have nothing to fear”. The phrase resonated with me because it encompasses a much larger societal belief held by many consumers in the current digital landscape; one where most citizens fail to account for the importance of their personal data. In today’s increasingly connected environment, personal data has become a tangible commodity subject to exploitation by corporations from every economic sector. Given the increasing measures of corporations to collect personal information, it is important to start a discussion on how a ‘consumer complacency’ will impact the most digitally connected demographic – students.
While many students are aware of how their browsing history is utilized in dynamic pricing tactics, such as airplane or concert tickets, fewer understand the use of tracking software to extract personal information in other realms of their livelihood. A disturbing example of this was demonstrated in early 2019, when the Washington Post reported that over 44 public and private American Universities consulted third party companies to examine and analyze data that they collected on prospected high school students. This was executed using programs which tracked web activity and online behaviour with the help of software tools, specifically ‘cookies.’ This information was then used to help identify variables, including the socioeconomic status of prospective students, to formulate predictive scores which would measure the likelihood of a student enrolling at their institution.
By matching something as simple as a cookie to an IP address, admissions officers were able to easily identify students and track their online behaviour prior to their enrollment application. Once a cookie became attached to a browser, the admissions office was able to gather more information every time a student revisited their website. This included how long each prospective student spent on their website and the types of information they browsed, whether it be financial, academic, or athletic. While these predictive analytic tools can be deployed to help favour ethnic minorities or even increase diversity on university campuses, it could also be used for the opposite measures. In light of COVID-19 and the ensuing financial repercussions that many universities have faced, many institutions have begun to use online tracking software to target out-of-state students paying significantly higher fees. These practices may raise hidden barriers that perpetuate the novel discrimination that many have been enduring for years. In addition, the profiles that schools are able to build about students can help administrators quickly determine if students have family incomes that can enable them to hit the institution’s annual financial quotas.
While this specific discovery of shady admissions tactics only applies to American institutions, the fundamental point that must be recognized by Canadian students is that the geographical location of the exploitation is irrelevant. Rather, the fight for online privacy should be viewed as a global issue that is not limited by conventional borders. This is because cyber space can act as both an abstract and malleable entity with free-flowing exchanges of information which are not restricted by the geo-political barriers that make up the modern world. For the most part, if a corporation establishes its data centres in a jurisdiction that has weak privacy laws, or exhibits a weak privacy culture, then consumers must act in blind faith that the organization will uphold their privacy. For international students who may even be interested in enrolling into an American university program, a lack of awareness of the admissions methods and privacy laws of that jurisdiction prior to the submission of an application could be detrimental to their acceptance.
In regard to students such as myself, who are indecisive about their future and question where they will study, live, or work in the next few years, it is becoming more important than ever to protect our personal information. When asking professionals about their career decisions as students, their lack of follow-through with an initially anticipated career trajectory happens to be consistent with many of my peers today – indecisive and continuously changing. It therefore begs the question, while online profiling may enable machines to predict our behaviours, thoughts, and actions, it still neglects the one aspect of life that makes us intrinsically human – the inconsistencies of our decisions. Without a world where we are free to think, explore, question, or even make honest mistakes, are we living in a digital utopia or an algorithmic dystopia?
While the future of data and privacy is continuously evolving to meet the advances of information technology, if we are to live in a world where we wish to control the outcomes of our decisions, we should strive to understand the importance of our personal information and ensure that consumers are equipped with the necessary tools to protect themselves.
With regards to my colleague to whom I spoke about at the beginning of this article – you may have nothing to hide, but you have everything to protect.