California State University Official Calls For Colleges To Monitor Students Online

10/10/2011 12:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2011

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

Billions of details about students' lives pulse through university computer servers every day. The data is in e-mails from school accounts, in online purchases and Facebook updates made on school Internet connections.

This flood of data might contain clues to future violent threats at colleges. A campus police lieutenant at CSU Channel Islands is arguing that university officials need to use that information to monitor their student bodies.

Lt. Michael Morris took his case public this week with an editorial published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"This information, which may reside in the university's IT system, would allow the campus to strategize a swift and effective intervention, and take steps to prevent violent behavior from ever occurring," he wrote.

No such surveillance is under way at California universities or elsewhere in the U.S. However, it is possible to gather and analyze the data, according to Michael Berman, chief information officer for CSU Channel Islands.

"Technologically, yes, but it would violate our current policies," Berman said.

Those policies [PDF] stipulate that the university doesn't "generally monitor or restrict" content on its systems and networks. The exception to that rule is if someone is committing a crime or violating CSU policies.

"But that would not be a general monitoring where we'd be looking at what people do in their ordinary course of business," Berman said.

Campus policies would be the shortest stumbling block for electronic surveillance.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal law that generally blocks student records with identifying information from release. The restrictions include law enforcement unless police obtain a court order.

In an interview yesterday, Morris said he envisions most of the student data would be used to direct counseling toward students at risk. The information would rarely spur criminal investigations, he speculated.

Morris acknowledged that there are flaws in his proposal, the most significant being that universities do not know what data signifies a threat.

"Once you've got information, what do you do with that?" Morris said. "I don't know what the volume would be. I don't know what the data would look like."

Universities have shifted their security operations in the four years since a disturbed Virginia Tech student shot to death 32 people on campus before killing himself.

School officials set up "threat assessment" teams whose sole purpose is identifying troubled students. Also, students' private information is shared more freely among university officials. Schools for a time debated whether to expand the personal information they collect, including medical records.

Morris is a member of CSU Channel Islands' assessment team. He said he hopes his editorial starts a discussion about best practices for mining student data. In a decade, he believes the privacy laws might have eased, making records of online activity less controversial.

Legal obstacles aside, the data mining Morris suggests would require a huge force to analyze and investigate leads.

Colleges are not equipped to run an intelligence agency, said Philip Beltran, campus safety director at Santa Clara University.

"He must have a huge force down there," Beltran said, referencing CSU Channel Islands' police department. "Homeland Security has trouble monitoring" online activity, he said.

Ryan Gabrielson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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