Study: Schools may force students to leave ‘digital watermarks’ behind

A new study says that U.S. colleges could soon implement a controversial “privacy policy” that will force students to leave everything behind — including personal essays, blackboards, whiteboards, books and pens — when enrolling in online courses.

The study, a joint effort by activist groups and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), was conducted in response to revelations that the Atlantic University now requires freshmen to submit “digital watermarks” — essentially digital signatures — that only the school can see. The digital tokens would identify students’ physical belongings and return valuable digital files to the parents’ home.

Federal law requires schools to disclose details of admissions to parents and to ensure that “reasonable protection” of private student information is maintained. There are, however, exceptions for educational institutions, which can set their own privacy rules, if the student withdraws.

“The way college privacy was structured is not what it should be to have a safe, well-informed public debate about why these technologies should be used,” said Samantha Harris, public affairs director for EPIC.

The study, titled “Private Unclassified Information: Admissions Practices and First Responder Law,” was published Monday.

The participants in the study:

A Democratic Congresswoman

A Republican Congressman

One of several ‘Digital Watermarking’ experts

Michael Petrilli, President and CEO of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

“I think there is a real tension between companies that have products that are entrusted with specific government information because of their ethics,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois. “At the same time, I think you also have to balance the fact that as an educational institution, there is a protection of privacy that any student should expect.”

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