I spy with my little eye…

The question came very innocently.  A participant in a workshop I was co-facilitating asked me where our learning management system stored its data.  During the workshop, I was praising Desire2Learn and how the system was easy to use, student-centered and scalable.  I explained that I also appreciated Desire2Learn’s focus on accessibility and how it has received accolades from different groups like the National Foundation for the Blind.  But none of that seemed to matter.  The participant asked again.

“But, where does the data live?”

Since Desire2Learn is a Canadian company, I explained that I would assume the data would be stored on a site in Canada.  With a huge sigh of relief, the participant explained that she would recommend the service to her institution’s IT staff.  During a break, I approached the individual to delve more deeply into her inquiry.  As a professor at a foreign institution, she explained, her college was purging itself on any American-based technologies.  The college was not pursuing new contracts with American-based tech companies and was not planning to renew the current American contracts it had.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, the institution was concerned about spying from the National Security Agency and didn’t want any of its data in the hands of companies based in the United States.

My first reaction was that this person represented a single institution that was being influenced by some overly cautious IT staff members.  This weekend, however, I read an article in the New York Times titled “NSA Spying Cost on Tech Firms” that changed my perception completely.  The article outlined how many companies around the world were choosing technologies based outside the US so that “their information is safe from prying eyes in the United States government.” After reading the article, it is clear that the fear of US technology companies isn’t a sentiment shared by a single institution but by companies and organizations worldwide. For instance, after hearing reports that the NSA spied on its governmental leaders, Brazil decided to no longer use Outlook as its mail service for fear of having its data mined again.  Companies like IBM are not being invited to bid on contracts with foreign-based firms.  Runbox, a Norwegian based email service, saw dramatic increases in new subscribers as users fled from American-based Gmail.  With the growing groundswell of suspicion, the economic impact could be staggering.  Some research analysts estimate that the American technology industry could lose over $180 billion with the decrease in website hosting, cloud computing and other web-based services.

While the potential economic impacts to US companies are frightening, I also worry about the educational impact.  Will we start seeing similar impacts in our classrooms?  Will foreign students stop coming to American institutions of higher education because they fear for their privacy?  Will foreign students no longer choose online classes from American schools because they worry that their personal information and communication are not secure?  While most of the focus has been on the personal and economic impacts of the surveillance programs, I wonder whether the suspicions and negative perceptions being felt by American-based technology firms will carry over to American colleges and universities.  While I worry about a potential decline in our foreign population on campus, I also worry that American students and institutions aren’t more concerned for their privacy and security.  Shouldn’t they be asking where their data lives?  Shouldn’t we all?


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