Blog 13: Big data… whose data?

Blog 13: Big data… whose data?

In Chapters 3 and 4, Greengard discusses how the Internet of Things is about tapping into big data by giving value to information collected. He has identified a few components that crucial to information collection:

  • Sensors
  • GPS and real-time location systems
  • RFID tags

Greengard also talks about the ways big data analytics are going to “revolutionalize” different sectors, including military, medical, business, and homes.

As I reflect upon the popular narratives about the Internet of Things and how it might affect our lives, I can’t help but to play devil’s advocate, and ask the question about data ownership and security. We have talked for a little bit in class about the Oral Roberts University (ORU) case where incoming freshmen were required to wear a Fitbit to record their physical activity and movement for the purposes of the university’s health and wellness program.

This example allows us to question the ownership of data. From the perspective of the students, we may ask: who owns the activity data generated by the student population at large? Is it the individual students? The faculty members (I sure hope not)? The administrators (some argue so)? Or everyone?

The fact is that current privacy laws in educational settings are not compatible with the technological practices in these settings. FERPA and HIPPA are the two many acts protecting student information from being shared with third parties––including their parents, if the student is over 18 years old and does not give consent to the university for sharing their records. Yet, in the ORU case, activity data are aggregated data. They are not specific to individual students and thus FERPA and HIPPA would not apply.

That being said, students still have the rights to their own records, and how these records are being used by the university administration. If not treated with care and ethics, these (big) data could be used for for-profit or surveillance purposes. For instance, university administration could use findings from these data analytics to determine when students tend to visit the library, or the cafeteria, or the amount of activity at various times of day. These information could inform how the different university locations can manipulate their operations to better serve students, or to advertise products or services to students based on their locations.

While it might seem bizarre at first, these are very practical ideas that could be easily implemented for as long as university administration has control of student information. Checks and balances would need to be put in place to ensure the proper and ethical use of student data. Otherwise, we would run into problems of misuse, such as the following news story on the ORU Fitbit program––regarding the administrators possible misuse of the device to spy on students.

The topic of privacy and surveillance still needs a lot attention. We are on the edge stepping into a new version of the university, where the business of education is no longer just about knowledge making and dissemination, but also how to profit out of the process using connected technologies. Part of the goals of this course is for us to see this oncoming phenomenon, and prepare ourselves to respond when necessary.

Questions for discussion:

  • Besides tracking student activity, what else could the Internet of Things infrastructure offer higher education?
  • How might the Internet of Things help improve our interpersonal communication?

Greengard, Samuel. The internet of things. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Introduction, Chapter 3 & Chapter 4]


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