From university e-mail accounts to research and social networking done through on-campus wireless connections, there is a wealth of information available about individual student habits and behaviors. Most students operate under the assumption that this information is never reviewed or monitored by university officials, but that may all be changing soon.
Authorities and school faculty have seen a rash of violent outbreaks by students in recent years, all of which have been somewhat easy to predict in hindsight by researching the online behavior and activities of the student in question. It is easy to see these types of patterns after the fact, but what if this type of behavior was able to be predicted and an intervention with the student took place before any violence occurred?
Officials say that algorithms such as the ones that online services like Amazon.com, Google, and others use to mine data from online interactions could be helpful in predicting potential candidates for violent or criminal behavior.
For example, after a Virginia Tech student shot and killed 32 people on campus before turning a gun on himself, the school created a “threat assessment” team. These teams work to identify potentially troubled students based on their online and in class interactions. They share personal information between faculty members who interact with these students, and look for potentially threatening behaviors.
Some school officials and civil rights groups contend that this type of “digital surveillance” is unconstitutional and that it violates a number of laws and regulations already in place, including Ferpa (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), which does not allow for the release of any information from a student’s educational record without the student’s written permission.
Others worry about the fact that this task seems a monumental undertaking, and would require a large amount of personal and financial resources, which many schools simply do not possess, especially in the current economic climate. There is also the question of what a potential threat would look like in pure data form. Simply because a student posts on Facebook a complaint about a professor and shops online for firearms does not necessarily mean that he or she is planning an act of violence.
But if it did, and if officials were able to avert this type of tragedy, would it be worth the sacrifice of student privacy?