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‘Big Quercus’ is watching you: an in-depth look at U of T student privacy

Sarah Ingle’s report "Mapping The Student Body" on how student data is gathered, used and managed at the University of Toronto
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JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY
JOSEPH DONATO/THE VARSITY

In April 2020, Sarah Ingle, a U of T alum, wrote a report called “Mapping The Student Data Body,” which explores the collection and use of student data within the University of Toronto’s information technology systems and its administrative processes.

The report is focused on the main educational technologies that students interact with, namely Quercus, ACORN, Microsoft 365, and UTORauth — U of T’s central authorization and identification database. In her report, Ingle looks at the privacy and security assessments that are used in implementing these technologies in order to see their impact on student data privacy.

How it all began

When asked about how the idea for the project came to her, Ingle told The Varsity that it came about after she learned how academic integrity cases at U of T used metadata as evidence during their trial. Ingle was told that things such as a student’s last login, what time they saw an email, and whether or not they opened an email could be used against them if they were ever on trial for plagiarism or other academic offences.

“To me, that pointed to there really being an issue of consent,” she said. Ingle added that she does not think students should be penalized because of metadata evidence if they are not aware that this data is being collected or that it can be used in a trial against them.

Ingle told The Varsity that the report is all about consent. It looks at privacy and consent through a provincial and federal lens but it especially focuses on the privacy laws that exist for the public sector. Ingle said that these laws specifically relate to the user’s understanding of how and why data could be collected and used, and she does not feel that U of T collects information in a way that can be defined as consensual.

Within the report, Ingle also mentions that the only time students consent to data collection is the Notice of Collection that is shown to students when applying to U of T. She believes that it does not adequately capture the many potential ways U of T uses student information and that students need to better understand how their agreement will impact their path through university and their life beyond it.

The importance of transparency

Ingle told The Varsity that there is a big push within the education sector toward technology that has the capability to monitor student performance. Ingle said that COVID-19 has really accelerated a trend to “datafy students’ experiences by introducing new educational technologies and all kinds of measuring systems around student performance.” Universities are now using more ‘datafication’ tools, such as exam proctoring software, that facilitate online evaluations and measure student performance.

Ingle commented that not all students are impacted equally by datafication and by the analytics that it produces. Exam proctoring software is riddled with software issues that result in incredibly racist and classist outcomes. For example, a Black or brown student can be flagged for potentially cheating because the algorithm or software cannot recognize their face; some students must shine a light in their face in order to have the software pick them up.

U of T’s stance on privacy

In a statement to The Varsity, a University of Toronto spokesperson emphasized the university’s commitment to protecting the privacy of students as well as all members of the university community. The spokesperson wrote that the university’s approach to privacy is not only compliant with the law and good privacy practice, but is also pedagogically driven and student-centric. “We tell people how we protect privacy according to the law, and how we ensure that data is collected, protected and retained appropriately,” they wrote.

The university ensures that it only collects personal information from users if they knowingly provide this information for official university purposes. The spokesperson claimed that the university regularly reviews the information it provides users about how their data will be used and makes sure this information is stated as simply as possible so that all users can understand the principal purposes for the university’s use of their data. “We also monitor changes in technology, laws, and social norms related to privacy,” the spokesperson wrote.

Ingle says that a simple change that U of T could make which would make them more inclusive and informative would be to give access to university policies in multiple languages. It would also help to translate the policies into plain language because it is currently incredibly difficult to understand a great deal of their policy due to how heavy it is on legal jargon. In the long term, Ingle says that U of T should strive to include students in their decision-making process and allow students to opt out of letting the university collect some of their information.