Big Brother Is Watching, University Edition

Should colleges mine students' data for signs of violent behavior?


In recent years several college campuses have been the settings of tragic violence. In the aftermath, university administrations are examining how to make their schools safer. How can schools provide more robust mental-health services? How can they build a sense of community and help students not to feel alone away from home? How can they ensure academic rigor without pushing students to a breaking point?

An op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education offers up an unappealing tactic: mine students' online data. Michael Morris, a lieutenant with the University Police at California State University-Channel Islands, writes:

Many campuses across the country and most in California provide each student with an e-mail address, personal access to the university's network, free use of campus computers, and wired and wireless Internet access for their Web-connected devices. Students use these campus resources for conducting research, communicating with others, and for other personal activities on the Internet, including social networking. University officials could potentially mine data from their students and analyze them, since the data are already under their control. The analysis could then be screened to predict behavior to identify when a student's online activities tend to indicate a threat to the campus.

If university officials were to learn that a student had conducted extensive online research about the personal life and daily activities of a particular faculty member, posted angry and threatening comments on his Facebook wall about that professor, shopped online for high-powered firearms and ammunition, and saved a draft version of a suicide note on his personal network drive, would those officials want to have a conversation with that student, even though he hadn't engaged in any significant outward behavior? Certainly.

Morris calls this data the university's "crystal ball" and goes on to argue that data mining can predict the propensity for violent behavior with "amazing accuracy," just like credit card companies can notify you if your credit card has been stolen.

But how many times has your credit-card company thought your card had been stolen when you had just gone on a trip or made a purchase at a store you don't normally frequent? This has happened to me far more than my card has actually been stolen. Of course, a false positive with regard to a stolen credit card is no big deal. The company calls you and you explain the purchase, and later remark to your friends how glad you are that they noticed something unusual, because were it to ever be stolen for real, you'd know quickly.

A false positive suspicion that someone is about to commit a violent crime is a totally different story, and could potentially result in a violation of a student's rights, a blow to his or her reputation (socially or academically), and could have ramifications for their future for years to come.

If anything, the university is a quasi-sacred space in the American landscape, where freedom of information, speech, and ideas should be zealously guarded. Part of this has to do with the role of the university in examining ideas both big and small that shape the country's ideological landscape. But another part of this is more personal: for many, college is their first time out of the house, away from their parents, on their own to figure out relatively unobserved who they are. If universities start monitoring students' digital lives with greater rigor, that freedom will be diminished, and the piece of the American college experience will be less vital.

Let's hope that instead of pursuing cockeyed schemes like data-mining, schools put their resources into making their campuses happier, friendlier, and more welcoming places. Such an effort would pay off not just in increased security, but in improving the overall learning environment.

Image: monkeymanforever/Flickr.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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