Blurring boundaries of confidentiality

Malcolm Gillies hesitates before marking any documents ‘For your eyes only’

October 10, 2013

A couple of decades ago, when I first became a faculty dean, a friendly colleague suggested that administrative tasks should take only 15-20 minutes a day. (He also recommended giving just one lecture a year “to keep your hand in”, presumably as insurance for the post-deanly world.) You needed three red stamps, he explained. One said FILE, a second said URGENT and the third screamed CONFIDENTIAL. Everything else should be shovelled without classification into the out tray. Your executive officer or secretary would deal with it - no need to worry. Failing that, he suggested just sweeping everything else on your desk into the bin at the end of each month. If it really mattered, someone would get back to you.

I still have the three red stamps and still use them, sometimes in imaginative combinations. Many a time, in this digital world, I have been thankful for a judiciously filed paper copy.

Unfortunately, the other parts of my colleague’s administrative solution never quite worked the way he described. Email, the internet, changed laws, a demand-led world and new schemes of delegation, as well as the demise of the “god professor” and the “dictator dean”, all now make administrative process a business in itself. And personal accountabilities of office are much more crisply defined than ever before.

I hesitate before marking anything CONFIDENTIAL these days. Will it ultimately make any difference, other than signalling to any recipient that something out of the ordinary is within?

While FILE and URGENT still mean pretty much what they did 20 years ago - although how you respond to them has changed - CONFIDENTIAL has entered a different world. Then, it signified the need to keep the material somewhere secure, with restricted access. You did not want such a thing, for instance, lolling about for a few weeks in the to-be-filed tray in the faculty office.

Now, however, something is confidential if it is a private communication, or contains intimate details or “secrets”, or might be commercial-in- confidence, or involves a level of trust that goes beyond the normal. A lawyer could add another few pages of instances, I’m sure. Data protection and privacy, freedom of information, ethical disclosure and document access regulations mean I hesitate before marking anything confidential these days. Will it ultimately make any difference, other than signalling to any recipient that something out of the ordinary is contained within?

In the daily press, at present, confidentiality is most associated with security. Our national secrets, for instance, need to be kept safe. Indeed, Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, last week told Tory faithful at the annual party conference that Britain needs not just cyber defences but also strike capacity, so that it can be on the front foot in the intelligence game (“Britain plans cyber strike force”, The Guardian, 30 September).

The Edward Snowden revelations, following on from WikiLeaks, present a world bulging with surveillance capacities, purportedly both to preserve and expose confidentialities “in the national interest”. But, in fact, they are snooping in the bureaucratic, military, industrial or trading closets of even close allies. Such surveillance now seems so out of control that it may be the biggest global challenge to basic human rights. Perhaps not in the UK, however, as Theresa May, the home secretary, wants to get there first, with last week’s call to “scrap” the Human Rights Act to “get rid of dangerous foreigners”.

In universities we have to respond to this world of challenged confidentialities. The requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998 are now well understood. However, despite autonomy and growing commercial activity, universities struggle under an expensive, and sometimes vexatious, burden of Freedom of Information requests. At the same time, the press thrives on leaked confidential documents that have simply bypassed such FoI requests and are published “in the public interest”.

Naiveties about freedom of access to ongoing (pre-publication) research are belatedly being recognised by government. But there is less consideration of confidentiality issues residing on the teaching and learning side of a university’s ledger.

Last month I attended an EducationInvestor workshop in London on higher education data analytics. CourseSmart, a leading provider of digital textbooks, made a powerful presentation that included consideration of its “engagement index”. This index records how students are using CourseSmart e-materials. The resultant data can assist the company in revising and customising learning materials. If no one is actually reading chapter 3, then a new edition will be on the way. Such analytics can also help to detect illegal copying.

But it’s not just the publishing company that has access to this information. The student’s teacher can also see who is reading what in her class, how they are engaging with the text, even how long the e-text has been open. This can help in the early identification of students likely to be at risk of falling behind or students who might be placed at the wrong learning level. “We’ll ultimately show how the student traverses the book. There’s a correlation and causality between engagement and success,” said Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart (“Teacher knows if you’ve done the e-reading”, The New York Times, 8 April).

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” commented Tracy Hurley, dean of the business school at Texas A&M University in the same article. But students worry that there is also a correlation between teacher perception and grade success. Does a low engagement index score lead to a negative image of the student? Or suspicion if the student nonetheless scores well in assessments?

What should now be stamped CONFIDENTIAL between student and teacher?

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