Students using Turnitin vulnerable to Patriot Act

The Eyeopener(Ryerson University)
TORONTO (CUP) — Turnitin, an online anti-plagiarism tool used by many university professors, may leave students vulnerable to surveillance by U.S. officials.
The database of Turnitin encrypts and stores student essays in the United States, which means that student work could be investigated under the controversial post-9/11 Patriot Act.
Ryerson University pays approximately $10,000 each year to the Californian company for its plagiarism prevention service, which compares student papers against its extensive database and generates a detailed “originality report” indicating possible instances of plagiarism.
Turnitin is one of many services used by Canadians that is based in the United States. Under section 215 of the 2001 Patriot Act, U.S. government officials are granted sweeping access to public and private records “to protect against international terrorism”.
Hypothetically, American officials could cross-check the database for keywords such as “bomb,” “terrorist plot” and “kill George W. Bush,” and wind up with detailed information about essays using those terms.
“Yes, U.S. officials can get access to that sort of database,” said Susan Herman, a law professor specialist in terror legislation and member of the board of directors at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). But first, she said, “the officials would need authorization of a special court of federal judges who meet in secret.”
Herman said that section 215 applies to “all custodians of information,” public or private, meaning libraries, financial companies or private databases.
So with a court order obtained without probable cause from a secret court, the FBI could seize Turnitin’s data for investigation and use it for criminal investigations of Canadians.
Many universities are already taking action to ensure that student information is subject to Canadian law exclusively. On Oct. 9, the University of Alberta switched its RefWorks database from an American to a Canadian server.
RefWorks is an American library research tool. A week ago, it was reported that “dozens” of schools including Memorial University, of Newfoundland had made the same switch.
“It’s a matter of privacy and how that relates to U.S. laws,” said Karen Lippold, the Memorial University librarian who brought the RefWorks issue to light. “Searching a contentious subject could have serious repercussions on someone’s professional life and their basic freedom.”
Craig Smith, the director of the Centre for First Amendment Studies at California State University, says that since no one has taken the U.S. government to court over Turnitin, it is difficult to know what the government can get away with.
“Nobody’s tested that yet,” Smith said.
“The problem with the Patriot Act is that private companies cannot disclose when they have been forced to hand over information to the government,” said Joe Comartin, the NDP justice critic. “Students could be investigated by American authorities or by those in the Canadian intelligence services without their knowledge.”
Few student unions or university administrations appear concerned about the implications of the Patriot Act. So far, only Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia has refused Turnitin’s service on those grounds, banning it “and any other plagiarism-detection software that requires that students’ work become part of an external database where other parties might have access to it.”
Almost 400 local governments and seven states have passed resolutions denouncing the Patriot Act. American libraries, universities and publishers have scrambled to conduct policy reviews to ensure that they are not susceptible to FBI investigations.
At Ryerson, said Diane Schulman, secretary of Academic Council, “We’ve had very little concern about it. Most students are quite happy because it protects their work.”
Schulman denied the danger, saying student work “is stored digitally on secure servers,” and the university has the company’s assurance “it is not going to be given to anyone.”
Ryerson’s academic integrity web page says students’ intellectual property rights are protected by Turnitin’s privacy pledge. The web page tells faculty “it is strongly suggested that you have all students submit papers directly to Turnitin.com.”
Still, some students and faculty are wary of entrusting important student privacy policy to the American company. Neil Thomlinson, chair of Ryerson’s politics and public administration program, was an early advocate of Turnitin and one of the first Ryerson professors to use it.
“Nobody’s supposed to read the essays, it’s a completely electronic process,” he said, “but what concerns me, and what you should ask Turnitin.com, is ‘Can you guarantee that U.S. officials can’t access this stuff?’ I just don’t know.”
Turnitin did not offer any comment, despite numerous phone calls.
On its Web site, Turnitin.com, the company explains that a team of lawyers determined its services were legally airtight. The website qualifies the above by saying, “whether new intellectual property protections are needed for students [is] open to debate”.
“With the present fixation on security, no-fly lists, etc., I think it’s a valid question . I mean, it was pretty unlikely that Maher Arar would get shipped off to Syria, but that happened,” said Thomlinson, who went on to say that Turnitin’s reports include the class, teacher and date of sources closely matching submitted essays.
“It’s of real concern for students, especially those of minority backgrounds who already feel targeted,” said Muhammad Ali Jabbar, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union.
“We think it [Turnitin] should not be used. Many times students have come to us and shown concern,” Jabbar added.
About 3,000 institutions in more than 80 countries have signed on to Turnitin since it was created 10 years ago.

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