Tuesday 9 April 2024

Guest Blog: Role-Based Privacy Cynicism and Local Privacy Activism: How Data Stewards Navigate Privacy in Higher Education

by Mihaela Popescu, Lemi Baruh, and Samuel Sudhakar 

When was the last time you truly felt that adjusting your privacy settings on your most visited platform enhanced your safety? In today's digital age, especially in the United States, many users have come to accept that sacrificing privacy is an unavoidable consequence of engaging with digital technologies. This realization often breeds cynicism or apathy towards privacy, leading individuals to abandon efforts to safeguard their personal information.


This phenomenon, known by various names like privacy cynicism, privacy apathy or surveillance realism, encapsulates feelings of mistrust, powerlessness, and resignation that consumers commonly experience. While existing research focuses on data subjects' attitudes, our study presents a unique perspective – that of data workers who straddle the roles of both data subjects and data handlers in higher education settings. We aimed to explore the prevalence of privacy cynicism among these data workers and its potential impact on university data governance.


Projections indicate that the global market for big data analytics in education will exceed $50 billion by 2030. Within this landscape, university data professionals – including campus registrars, learning platform administrators, and information security officers – play a crucial role in safeguarding university data assets, albeit not always prioritizing the privacy of campus stakeholders. Our research, based on in-depth interviews with data professionals at California State University, unveiled significant findings:


1. Receptiveness to Datafication: Despite concerns about datafication trends, data professionals in higher education view its implementation as beneficial.

2. Tactics to Navigate Challenges: When faced with data misuse concerns, these professionals employ short-term "privacy activism" tactics to delay problematic uses.

3. Structural Changes vs. Short-Term Solutions: While effective in the short term, these tactics offer temporary fixes without fostering lasting structural changes.


Similar to consumer privacy cynicism, our interviews reflected a parallel sentiment among data professionals, particularly when organizational privacy definitions clashed with their personal beliefs. They grappled with powerlessness and disillusionment, exacerbated by the apathy shown by the very individuals they aim to protect.


A key insight from our study is the potential far-reaching consequences of this perception. A perceived lack of efficacy coupled with a perception that data subjects (namely, the students) don't care about privacy may lead to a spiral of resignation, reducing data professionals' motivation to advocate for enhanced privacy. This, in turn, limits data subjects' access to meaningful privacy options, further fueling their privacy apathy and cynicism.