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Outrage as University of Newcastle to track student attendance using mobile phones


February 04, 2020 05:18:08

Students are accusing a NSW university of a “gross invasion of privacy” after being told their class attendance will be monitored using data from their mobile phones.

Key points:

  • Rather than signing a roll, students will have to check-in using a mobile phone app
  • The University of Newcastle says it will help identify those who need extra support
  • Students and civil liberties experts worry about privacy and how the data may be used

The University of Newcastle (UON) last week revealed it would use location records “and any other information … including personally identifiable information” to track attendance.

The student union’s education officer Luka Harrison said students were shocked to discover the university was planning to track them.

“We believe it’s a gross invasion of privacy on the part of the uni against the students and it points to a growing trend of the corporatisation of unis all around Australia,” Mr Harrison said.

The University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor, Liz Burd, said the policy affected only students commencing in 2020.

Students are required to attend a mandatory 80 per cent of their classes to pass courses at UON.

Rather than signing a roll, they will have to check-in to class on a mobile phone app.

Beacons or geolocation services will then verify they are actually in the classroom.

Students can opt-out of the program, however, they must sign in manually with the academic running the class.

Universities in Australia have previously come under fire for tracking students through their Wi-Fi usage.

Dr Adam Henschke, from the National Security College at the Australian National University, said instances of data tracking on university campuses were likely to increase in future, as part of a global trend.

Dr Henschke said while UON’s system might be “relatively innocuous”, the information could be combined with other personal data, such as home addresses or cultural background to become more revealing.

Ms Burd said the program was a good way to help students struggling academically.

“We’re using it for student support so we’ll be able to see if a student is dropping off and not able to do their studies, to be more proactive about the support mechanisms that we put in place,” she said.

Privacy lawyer and spokesperson for the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Stephen Blanks, said it was unclear how safe the students’ data would be.

“To give informed consent, it must be clearly explained what the data is that’s being collected, what it’s being used for, how it’s going to be stored, who has access to it and when it’s going to be deleted,” he said.

“Those are basic privacy concepts which must be dealt with in advance and unless they are, then any tick-a-box consent is meaningless.”

Ms Burd said the process would be explained to students during their orientation, and that the university would review the program to ensure data was kept safe.









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