By Laura Suen
After launching an investigation into privacy concerns with Turnitin, Ryerson is now saying it’s up to students whether or not they trust the site.
Last year, the Eyeopener reported that the U.S. Patriot Act enabled American officials to read papers you submit to Turnitin.com.
In response, Ryerson’s senate charged legal counsel Julia Hanigsberg with investigating potential security risks posed by the controversial anti-plagiarism software.
Eight months later, Hanigsberg still hasn’t presented a report.
Last week, she said the act “does not pose a risk to students.”
“No student is required to submit information to Turnitin,” she said. “Students can opt out.”
Hanigsberg said she was unable to divulge the full details of her investigation.
Instead, she plans to present her findings at a senate meeting “some time this year.”
Ryerson pays about $10,000 for the American anti-plagiarism service each year.
“The concern is about student exposure. Anything submitted to Turnitin gets exposed. In extreme cases, if they thought you were a terrorist and you flew through the States, you could find yourself like Arar,” Dave Mason, president of the Ryerson Faculty Association, said.
Ryerson’s academic integrity web page tells faculty “it is strongly suggested that you have all students submit papers directly to Turnitin.com.”
Turnitin works by comparing student essays to a database of journals, news articles and previously submitted essays. The essays are then encrypted and stored on U.S. servers.
Under the anti-terror Patriot Act, American officials can search public and private records, including databases such as Turnitin.
Backlash against the service dates back to 2005, when a McGill University student refused to submit his work to the website because of concerns about copyright infringement.
Turnitin isn’t the only American-based software used by Ryerson that holds sensitive student information.
Peoplesoft, the program used to operate Ryerson’s online registration site, RAMSS, might also be vulnerable to inspection under the same act.
“Again, in extreme cases, if I were an employee at Peoplesoft and if my alternative was to go to jail, it would certainly be in my interest to manufacture a problem so that Ryerson would give over information from its privileged accounts,” Mason said.
Calls to representatives of Peoplesoft and Turnitin about the security of information submitted by Canadian clients were not returned.
“Students just need to know their rights,” Hanigsberg said.
Ryerson students do have the right to refuse to use Turnitin as long as they make arrangements with their professor by the end of the second week of class.
In many cases, students are then required to submit annotated bibliographies including specific summaries of how each source was found and used.