The University of California, Berkeley became the first university in the country to issue a transparency report, detailing the instances where the government requested information about UCB students and staff. Recent cases involving Wikileaks and Edward Snowden notwithstanding, transparency rarely makes headlines — the release of statistics, no matter how important they are, does not quite fit the old newsroom axiom of “if it bleeds, it leads.” But as more and more of our college experience moves online, how NYU uses student data is of concern to all of us. In total, there were 36 data requests in 2014, and a further 19 during the first six months of this year. Given how much information NYU has on its students and staff and how much we depend on NYU Classes during the academic year, the administration should follow Berkeley’s lead and release a transparency report of their own.
NYU has over 49,000 students and over 4,500 faculty members. The university provides each and every one of them with an email account and access to Google Drive, which means that they are stewards of our data as much as any internet service provider. They host our syllabi, our homework assignments and our emails. And as with any ISP, NYU is responsible for the data that they process. Letting the NYU community know when that data has been requested by the government is the least they can do, a relatively small aspect that plays a massively important role in keeping the school community informed of the goings-on surrounding their data. As NYU Law professor Jason Schultz noted in Slate, releasing the data regularly makes it easier to spot anomalies, such as if the number of government requests increases after periods of unrest or protest. Many NYU students took part in Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, and knowing if the administration was asked to turn over private correspondence between students would be highly informative.
The Berkeley transparency report, by publicizing government data requests, chips away ever so slightly at the monolith of government surveillance. By informing students and faculty of government requests for their data, Berkeley makes the surveillance process more transparent, giving students an insight into how the university uses data entrusted to it. As more universities release transparency reports, students and staff can begin to take back control of their private information. Our information shouldn’t be less private just because it’s digital. NYU should start start gathering information and pledge to follow Berkeley’s example, releasing a transparency report in 2016.
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