Alumni information crosses the border

Affiliation with U.S.-based company contravenes privacy, alumnus says

Judith Brown
Judith Brown

Michael Shulist, Sci ’78, said he won’t give Queen’s any more money after learning about how the University handles his private information.

Shulist said he was contacted by Harris Connect, a U.S-based company, offering him the chance to opt into Queen’s University Alumni: Today, a directory that compiles alumni information and publishes it in a book every 10 years.

“I was intrigued by how they would have gotten it, purporting to be representative of the alumni association,” he said. “Today you can’t be too sure of what comes in e-mail, but it ended up it was truly a Queen’s alumni representative.”

After discovering Queen’s connection to a U.S company for the purposes of data management, Shulist said he became concerned about the implications of disclosing his personal information under the Patriot Act.

“I just feel that the alumni association should be the most above board organization when it comes to handing out my private information and the money I give them, and I don’t think they handled the first thing well, so I’m not happy with it.”

The Patriot Act, signed into law in 2001, expanded the jurisdiction of law enforcement for the purposes of fighting terrorism in the United States and abroad. It allows law enforcement agencies to use surveillance against crimes of terror, to follow sophisticated terrorists trained to evade detection, to conduct investigations without tipping off terrorists, to ask a court for an order to obtain business records in national security terrorism cases and to obtain a search warrant anywhere a terrorist-related activity occurred.

“It’s not that I have any aversion to people knowing something about me, but I do to have them knowing stuff about me that I consider private for reasons that have to do with loyalty and so on,” Shulist said.

Shulist said his biggest concern is the University giving his personal information to a U.S-based company.

“My criticism is not specific between Harris and Queen’s, more the general situation of choosing to use a US company,” he said. “My position would be the same to outsource the data management and collection.”

Diane Kelly, Queen’s legal counsel and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy co-ordinator , said the University is governed by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act—a piece of Ontario legislation recently amended to include Ontario universities that regulates the collection, use and disclosure of information and provides the public with access to University records.

“You can collect personal information if you provide notice.,” Kelly said.On all your registration forms, any student loan forms, you’ll see there’s a notice at the top of any forms stating the purpose for which the information is collected,.” “Two years ago we made sure that all forms we send to collect personal information contain the notice. It can only be disclosed in narrow circumstances.”

Kelly said the legislation allows the University to use agents for fundraising and friend-raising purposes, including the alumni directory update project.

“We don’t disclose any information to Harris Connect. What they have are the names of all our graduates and their addresses. That’s considered to be public information because if you graduate from Queen’s University, the year of your graduation and your name is considered to be public information,” she said. “They contact our grads and say ‘Would you like to be a member of this directory?’ If you don’t respond, then the only thing that’s listed is your name as a graduate.”

Kelly said although the Patriot Act allows the American government to access personal information under certain circumstances, the risk of that happening in the United States is no greater than it happening in Canada.

“There is also anti-terrorist legislature in Canada, which would allow the Canadian government to access personal information. The risks are not considered to be of any significance at all, and I think most people realize that,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of paranoia about the implications of Patriot Act. If the American government needed to get personal information about Canadians, there are already multiple ways they can do that by way of subpoena.”

Judith Brown, executive director of alumni relations and annual giving for the Queen’s Alumni Association, said Queen’s has used Harris Connect for the last two alumni directories, published in 1988 and 1998.

“They’re called a third-party organization,” she said. “For a limited number of big-scale projects where we don’t have the resources or expertise in-house to do the project, we will contract a third-party organization.”

When looking for a third-party organization specializing in data collection and management for a large-scale directory update, Brown said the University researched a number of companies in both Canada and the U.S. “We’ve been preparing this project for 18 months. We did contact our peer institutions to find out who’s the best at this job. Harris Connect is the leader in the field,” she said. “As we do for every other project, we connect ourselves with the very best.”

Brown said about half the alumni in Queen’s database have responded to Harris Connect so far.

“We’ve had 48,570 people respond to Harris. If you look at it that way, it’s about half of the alumni database that as participated with Harris in this project,” she said. “The great thing is that 10,104 have purchased copies of the directory so far.”

Regardless, Shulist said he’s opting out of having his personal information appear in the alumni directory,and plans to withhold all further donations he would have to Queen’s.

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