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Privacy Perspectives | How One School Tried to Raise Awareness of Sexual Assault and Forgot About Privacy Related reading: Not Just for Educators: Lessons from InBloom’s Demise

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This year has seen a number of sexual assault and domestic violence issues make the headlines. Of course, the National Football League and the accusations that it covered up, or at least diminished awareness of and penalties for, widespread domestic violence continue to garner media attention. But other stories came out this year that brought forth the widespread problem of sexual assault on college campuses around the country and the sickeningly incompetent investigations that allowed perpetrators to remain on campuses without repercussions and forced victims to continue to live in fear.

The New York Times published a lengthy piece on one student’s horror story at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, for example, while Time published this story and powerful video of a sexual assault case at Columbia University.

(For the complete version of the video, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the page.)

It goes without saying that these stories need to be told, and more needs to be done on campuses and in our society as a whole, to stymy these crimes.

Apparently, one attempt was initiated by Clemson University. The South Carolina institution unveiled a program to educate its student body on Title IX and to raise awareness about sexual discrimination, harassment and assault. Good intent. Bad results.

According to Campus Reform, the university sent out an email earlier this year requiring all students, faculty and staff take a mandatory one-hour Title IX training course. “We believe you’ll enjoy the assignment,” the email stated. “It is an engaging and informative online course, created with students for students. It will provide you with useful information regarding sexual violence and relationships. The course promotes a healthier and safer campus environment.”

Sounds pretty good, right?

Well, here’s the rub: The training course asked incredibly invasive and personal questions. And although it promised privacy and anonymity, students quickly pointed out that the course and survey were conducted through a third-party website and, to sign in, students had to use their student ID number.

Not only was the survey asking students about their drinking and drug habits but also more sensitive and personal questions: “How many times have you had sex (including oral) in the last 3 months?” and “With how many different people have you had sex (including oral) in the last 3 months?”

So what was the purpose of such questioning? According to one email sent from the university to a student, “The questions are part of the training so that you may get a sense of the behaviors and experiences of other Clemson students.” The email went on to explain, “Often, students have an exaggerated perception of the behaviors of their peers, so these questions are in hope of clarifying those misconceptions.”

Understandably, students were freaked out about those types of questions, and interestingly, they were pretty savvy about the flow of information. One student explained, “It’s not that I have an issue with being trained on Title IX … I have an issue with the personal questions that are asked, and the fact that I’m told it’s anonymous, but it’s clearly linked to my name, and it’s obviously through a third party so not only is my information that I’m going to be filling out—incredibly personal information regarding my sex life that I have issues with speaking about—it’s not only going to the university, it’s going to a third-party company that I don’t know.”

Really, the rollout of this training course should be instructive beyond university surveys and trainings. Clearly, privacy and its importance to the students (or users) when discussing ultra-sensitive matters were not considered from the outset. Where was the privacy pro? True, the university claimed it was keeping students’ data anonymous, and, maybe in conjunction with the third party it was, but the optics did not play out that way. Having students sign in with their student IDs seems to fly in the face of anonymity and privacy. Plus, as the reaction of one student showed, the younger generation is getting savvy about their personal information and how data can flow.

This is just one more lesson for organizations that are rolling out new products or services: Think through the entire data lifecycle; think about how your users will feel about the collection and use of their information.

Hopefully, awareness about the horrors of sexual assault will continue to grow while sexual assault itself diminishes. In the meantime, Clemson University heard the outrage of its student body and has since suspended the training course; it might not be that easy or inexpensive for other products and services to do the same.

2 Comments

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  • comment Mike • Sep 29, 2014
    I'm encouraged that these students were savvy enough to identify the clear negative privacy implications of this survey and take appropriate action. We hear too much about the younger generation's privacy ambivalence, but stories such as this point to a more practical understanding rather than one that looks at privacy as a matter of regulatory compliance.
  • comment Christina • Jan 18, 2015
    This demonstrates the complexity and challenges that universities face when implementing and maintaining a compliance program-more specifically a failure of the Clemson's IRB/ Human Research Protection Program review process for exemptions-cursory review of this survey could have detected the ID issue and third party use.   IRB programs and privacy programs can be synergistic in academic settings if compliance leaders have strong backgrounds in privacy-which is required by US and international human research regulations-IAPP could play an important role in reaching the university population.