The Temptation of Data-Enabled Surveillance

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The Temptation of Data-Enabled Surveillance
Communications of the ACM, April 2020, Vol. 63 No. 4, Pages 22-24
Computing Ethics
By Alan Rubel, Kyle M. L. Jones

[Learning Analytics] and data-enabled surveillance can begin as tools for social good but slide into morally suspect territory, especially in immersive institutions with fiduciary responsibilities like [Higher Education Institutions].


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.


These are laudable aims. However, current LA practices may be inconsistent with HEIs’ fiduciary responsibilities. HEIs often justify LA as advancing student interests, but some projects advance primarily organizational welfare and institutional interests. Moreover, LA advances a narrow conception of student interests while discounting privacy and autonomy. Students are generally unaware of the information collected, do not provide meaningful consent, and express discomfort and resigned acceptance about HEI data practices, especially for non-academic data (see Jones et al.).


The breadth and depth of student information available, combined with their fiduciary responsibility, create a duty that HEIs exercise substantial restraint and rigorous evaluation in data collection and use. Consider several recent examples.

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About the Authors:

Alan Rubel is an associate professor in the Information School and director of the Center for Law, Society & Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA.

Kyle M.L. Jones is an assistant professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University-Indianapolis (IUPUI), Indianapolis, IN, USA.