Privacy in the Pandemic: Approaching Privacy in Academia in Early 2021

Sitting here in early 2021, with the pandemic still raging, despite endless rounds of magical thinking, it is hard to see how we in academic libraries have done so far. We lack perspective and are still in the crisis management point of this experience. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought it would be interesting to see how well anyone was able to follow their stated values in a crisis, but I was too overwhelmed by everything going on in my personal life in addition to work life to do any research on this topic. It was not an unproductive period, however. I was able to work on new services, however slowly the work went, and despite presentations being canceled was able to “replace” all those presentations with others, leaving my CV intact for 2020. The values I was mostly concerned about were privacy, and throughout these presentations and new services was able to integrate reminders about the importance of privacy. I am always the privacy bird in meetings, after some idea is floated, I pop up and say, “But what about privacy?”  For example, in setting up a new contactless pickup service we discussed this for managing the hold pickup shelf and trying to keep as much of the communication as possible in systems with retention policies. But were we to carefully analyze all the privacy gaps in that service, I know it wouldn’t meet the highest standards that we set for ourselves (though even those are hard to meet).

Even if we do not have perspective, I want to spend some time attempting to wrap my mind around all the changes in expectation that, if not permanent, seem likely to be in operation for the next several years. I personally don’t believe that “everything will change forever”, but people have had to make a massive investment in new infrastructure and ways of working, and those are unlikely to be discarded instantly. That will affect values, which are always shifting anyway. The pandemic itself simply tore away norms or illusions of norms—but what is comfortable and easy will return in time.

That said, meeting the crisis in this moment has required flexibility that would have seemed incredible just a short time before. Perhaps not everyone looked up periodically during their workdays in April and said, “How is this our lives?” but I certainly did. As more realities crashed down upon us, what is effective and pragmatic tended to outweigh the more ethical ideal. The first shift came with remote learning, the second with massive protests and uprisings, and concomitant requests for academia to confront its institutional racism. Both these put the people with the least political capital (even though they might be the actual paying customers) in positions of defense against institutions which assumed that the students were going to do things like cheat or organize against administration. And maybe the students were going to do those things, but maybe those things needed to be done.

Academic integrity in remote learning was one of those topics I followed with interest based on my membership in an academic technology committee at my university, but the software the university had was treated as a niche and experimental product with only a few departments where it was relevant, and a price tag that kept it there. That of course all changed when classes that had exams in person and teachers who only had ever thought about giving exams in person needed to shift to being remote. Some people came up with byzantine strategies involving printing and scanning to ensure a time limit for students to have access to the test materials. Personally, the one time we really needed a printer for an important legal document that needed to be handed in on paper (though why remains a mystery to me) we had to visit the UPS store down the street, so that would have been tricky on a three-hour time limit.

Many turned to software instead. The proctoring solutions for remote exams often rely on showing the personal environment of the students in detail, which requires a level of autonomy and preparation that few people have. Right now, I have a giant pile of odds and ends on my desk that are out of view of my camera, so irrelevant to my work colleagues. But if I had to show all the material on my desk it would tell a story I might not want to tell—the at minimum three Dunkin Donuts coffee lid plugs being a major one of my pandemic gluttony and failure to throw things away. Other items are merely looking for a new home after a massive decluttering and reorganization project to make my home office livable, and I will get to them in time, but they are not urgent enough to warrant attention yet with everything else going on. Everyone is in the same situation. Few people have a prepared work area at home that they would want to show the world. (Side note: since writing this paragraph and publishing, I have cleaned up my desk because I have the kind of brain that needs an empty work surface to feel creative, which I know is opposite from many people).

The response of faculty or others in positions to assess and select tools has varied widely. In my personal experience, some people were casting about for whatever would recreate whatever method they already understood. Of course, it wasn’t possible to do that, but disciplines or courses built around a high stakes final exam were hard to retool in the middle of the semester. I heard some attitudes with which I didn’t agree. The most charitable interpretation of these is that students were under intense pressure themselves and removing temptation would be beneficial. I’m sure you can fill in the least charitable interpretation yourself.

On the other hand, many people are very concerned about surveillance of students, and the concurrent surveillance of everyone else. Asking public questions was a dangerous thing for Ian Linkletter who works at the University of British Columbia for being publicly outspoken about the dangers of Proctorio, though the  CEO of Proctorio claims the software was his own reaction to other more privacy-violating software. Perhaps there is no software that can truly be ethical in this space. I suspect not.

As we begin a semester that at least for now promises to possibly end with more in-person possibilities for exams but will necessarily involve mass surveillance of constant health testing to be on campus, where privacy fits in all this remains complicated. We cannot exist in public spaces currently without being tracked, and we cannot exist in private spaces without being tracked. Then again, last week saw one very public internet presence shut down for causing a seditious riot that was planned in public. Yet again, who is surveilled and for what cause indicates values.