Essays submitted to Turnitin.com with controversial subject matter could lead to Canadian students being investigated by the U.S. government under anti-terror laws. Drew Halfnight reports.
Turnitin.com, the 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 pays approximately $10,000 each year to the popular 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.com 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 had made the same switch. Ryerson’s RefWorks site is already connected to a Canadian server.
“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.”
Some Ryerson library databases are located in the U.S., said Ryerson President Sheldon Levy, but student log-in information is kept on a server in Kerr Hall.
But student information from Ryerson does not get this protection from Turnitin.
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,” NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said. “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 the 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 they are not susceptible to FBI investigations. But what is Ryerson doing to safeguard students against American terror legislation?
“We’ve had very, very little concern about it,” Secretary of Academic Council Diane Schulman said. “Most students are quite happy because it protects their work.”
Schulman denied the danger, saying student work “is stored digitally on secure servers, and it is not going to be given to anyone.” How can we be so sure? “We have Turnitin.com’s assurance,” she said.
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.”
“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.com did not offer any comment, despite numerous phone calls.
On its namesake website, Turnitin explains that a team of lawyers determined its services were legally airtight. Interestingly, 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,” added 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,” Muhammad Ali Jabbar, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union said.
“We think (Turnitin) should not be used. Many times students have come to us and show concern,” Jabbar added.
Three-thousand institutions in more than 80 countries have signed on to Turnitin since it was created the software 10 years ago.
Diane Schulman reminds students they can always opt out of Turnitin. Students must inform their teacher of their decision in the first two weeks of class.
— with files from Kristina Jarvis, Josh Visser