Living in the digital age, we are more intimately connected to technology than any other era. Every tap on your phone gives tech companies information about you. Your phone knows every message you have ever sent, every word you have spoken to Siri, the speed you drive at, your location, and your mood.
Americans are spending over eight hours a day on screens, new studies show. With so much time spent online, many have begun to wonder what happens with all of this data.
The Bay Area is the birthplace of the online landscape today, and is home to nearly 8,000 influential tech companies. Because of its proximity to this climate, USF has founded a new data ethics fellows program on a donation from Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.
As a part of the Center for Applied Data Ethics, two activist scholars are tasked with designing a new ethics curriculum for data science students on campus: Christina Boyles, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, and Nantina Vgontzas, who is coming from a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University.
Boyles’ interest in data ethics comes from her work in grassroots activism after environmental disasters in Puerto Rico. She said that “many of the government agencies use data as a way of determining who has the most need.” Her focus at USF is the intersection of community, disaster, government, and technology.
Vgontzas’ passion comes from labor work around technology. “I’ve been a labor movement activist since college. Now, there is the use of technology to further control workers movements,” they said. “I’m very animated by the question of how workers are building power in contemporary capitalism, looking at the algorithmic organization of work at Amazon.com.”
Vgontzas and Boyles will spend the next year developing their curricula to be used in data science courses in the fall of 2023.
“We’re often feeding data into a surveillance machine that is then being used and processed in ways that we might not sign up for,” Boyles said.
To get a better understanding of what data privacy concerns exist on the Hilltop, the Foghorn circulated a survey on Instagram. Although none of the survey questions required a response, out of 21 respondents, 11 people gave their full name, 17 people gave their email, and 14 people gave their personal phone number. This personal data, in the wrong hands, can be used in identity theft and online scams.
These students, while giving their data away, may be somewhat conscious of the fact that they are in jeopardy. Fifty percent of respondents said they do not consider themselves safe online and 78% of respondents said they do not think students are well versed in protecting their data.
Vgontzas saw some of these same concerns in their time working with students at NYU. “They’re being trained in the technical know-how of engineering and designing online platforms, but they are wondering at the end of the day, where’s that data going?” they said.
Boyles said she wants students to “push back against that surveillance machine.”
“I’m really hoping that students start to identify moments where surveillance is happening, to understand what the risks of that might be,” she said.
Boyles also said that even university required apps and websites can cause harm. Canvas LMS, which USF students use to turn in their coursework, was sold to a private equity investment firm in Dec. 2019. The company has said they are not going to sell user data, but that promise is not legally binding.
During the Foghorn’s interview with Boyles, she pointed out that Zoom, the application the interview was conducted on, “has one of the most loose privacy policies, where they’re really allowed to do anything with the recordings. So as we use this tool, they could take this recording and use it in commercials, or they could sell our data to third-party data brokers.”
According to the Foghorn’s survey, some students on campus are not thinking about the data implications of the platforms they choose to use, let alone the ones they are required to.
Eighteen of the 21 respondents use Google Chrome and Gmail as their primary search engines and email hosts, despite extensive evidence that Google does not care about respecting users’ privacy. In 2018 it was revealed that the tech giant would track users’ locations, even with location history turned off.
Only nine percent of respondents use a virtual private network (VPN), which can help protect your data from being tracked and obscure your location from prying eyes. Forty-three percent of respondents typically allow cookies, files that websites send to your device and to track your online habits.
Kaylee Rameriez, a third-year kinesiology major, accepts cookies when she is in a hurry. “I feel like no one is told what you’re really accepting by clicking yes on the site. So, it feels like it doesn’t really matter.”
While it may feel like all this online tracking won’t add up to much, or will only personalize your ads, there are real world consequences to the compilation of this information. In August, a Nebraska woman was charged with two felonies for helping her daughter end her pregnancy, based on Facebook messages investigators obtained detailing her purchase of abortion pills.
Beyond the government, this personal data can also be lost to hackers, like last year’s major T-Mobile breach, which exposed the data of 47.8 million users — data which showed up again on the dark web, being sold for $270,000.
Going into this fellowship, Boyles hopes that after learning about these data concerns, ethical ideals will become a long term practice for students. “As they go into their professional lives, we’re hoping that they start making change in the workplace,” she said. “The power imbalance that technology has right now needs to be in a healthier place that really emphasizes people first — to treat people well as opposed to making corporate profit.”
Savannah Dewberry contributed to the reporting of this story and the conducting of the survey.
Megan Robertson is the Foghorn’s news editor and a third-year media studies and performing arts and social justice double major. She covers breaking campus news and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.