Universities can see your social media

The University is probably watching you. 

Or more specifically, the administration at Queen’s are probably scouring Facebook and Twitter for your frosh plans, parties, and personal life details. 

As social media inches towards more visibility and less privacy, educational institutions, legal institutions, and employers gain the ability to glean data from people’s social media accounts.  

Think this isn’t likely? 

Daniel Trottier, who did his sociology PhD at Queen’s and focused his doctorate on social media surveillance, published a study in 2011 pertaining to such. It demonstrated how a particular Ontario university (made to be anonymous) and its administration unofficially creeped student’s Facebook accounts to get early warnings of large scale parties and events. This phenomenon could only grow in size as students’ social media presence become more ubiquitous. 

“Students that make themselves visible to one another on social media unintentionally augment institutional surveillance”, Trottier wrote. And institutions typically jump for joy at an opportunity to impose their rules, policies, and risk mitigation strategies where they may not be welcome. Institutions that perform such surveillance practices do so with multiple intentions; ranging from marketing innovationsand student engagement to defending an institutional reputation and liability issues, Trottier points out.

Obviously, I can only speculate to whether or not Queen’s administration does this, However, it’s clear that such practices are becoming more common as Queen’s has taken an interest in social media in the past. 

In 2008, a Queen’s task force was devised to explore and understand the role of social media in the University’s reputation. This led to a document that urged a commitment to monitoring social media — later leading to the creation of the Queen’s University Visual Identity Policy, which dictates how people represent the University through a consistent branding process. 

Principal Daniel Woolf wrote in this document: “The impact of our brand is measured not only by what people know about us, and how they feel about us, but by how easily they recognize Queen’s and identify with the institution. By following these guidelines, you are protecting one of our most valuable assets — our brand identity”.

Clearly Queen’s has a vested interest in knowing how its members are representing their brand.

However, such a fixation on reputation and liability can lead to a slippery slope. There’s no consistent policy regulating how the University should engage in investigative work through social media. 

Think of how many admissions or awards committees at the University might scour extra dirty details about nights out partying. Such institutional creeping can lead to unfair assessments of students’ personal lives. 

Students shouldn’t have to police their own identities to exist in a University setting. 

Perhaps nights spent by students out dancing or having fun are a manifestation of a work hard, play hard attitude. However, such concept may not be clearly articulated from students’ (likely) public Facebook photo albums. 

In other words, institutional creeping lacks any kind of contextual background. 

The fact that the marketing apparatus at the University doesn’t have a system to hold them accountable to its members’ privacy is incredibly problematic. 

Researchers and students at this institution are accountable to the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. 

This means that researchers need to achieve consent from their participants to delve into their lives. It also holds researchers accountable to maintaining the privacy of their research participants. The University takes this very seriously — for better or worse. 

The policy defines privacy as “an individual’s right to be free from intrusion or interference by others”. If this is a standard enforced on researchers at Queen’s  in the interest of the protection of the rights of citizens, then it should go without saying that the administration should be held to the same standards.

This issue needs attention at the highest level of the University. It needs to be debated at Senate and it needs to lead to the drafting of policy. Queen’s must be held accountable to the privacy of its members. 

But, don’t expect this to happen anytime soon.

Even if the people who have the clout to enforce change at the level of Senate or Board of Trustees are galvanized to make a move — the bureaucracy is incredibly slow. 

In the mean time there are a few things you can do to protect your data and your private life. Namely, increasing the privacy settings on all social media platforms. And if students are really planningsomething scandalous, do so through a private messenger. 

Students’ weekends are of direct interest to the University. 

The people watching may also be peers, residence dons, or grandmothers. 

Being aware of who might be watching, and why, allows for students to at least keep the control of their personal information in their own hands. Students at this institution deserve at least that much.

Kyle Curlew is a MA student in Sociology.

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