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Jantina Tammes School of Digital Society, Technology and AI JTS Themes A Roadmap to Data Autonomy
Header image Data Autonomy

Data autonomy: A student’s perspective of the future

Date:22 April 2024
Author:Victor Toma


As a student in the educational ecosystem, the topic of 'data', and even more so 'data autonomy', is one that is very rarely broached in either formal discussions or social circles. At first glance, this may not seem like an important variable to consider, but I would argue that it could be one of the most influential and important vectors of change within society. A generation is undoubtedly shaped by the circumstances in which it finds itself, and the current young generation (like almost every generation before it) has an unprecedented problem to solve. The industrial revolution came and went, now is the age of AI and data. 

Ever growing concern

But why should students focus on this? Climate change and war are at the forefront of people's minds at the moment, and rightly so, given the current political climate. Nevertheless, with the tech giants having a clear monopoly on most of the internet we consume, there are clear signs that we are marching towards a future where fewer and fewer people will dictate how and for what purpose pieces of technology will be used. In Western Europe in particular, we are already seeing the integration of services from US-based companies such as Google, Meta and Microsoft into everyday life. This trend may not be at the forefront of the headlines, but it is a factor that will strongly shape our future.

Data is being produced at an unprecedented rate at the moment, and this increase shows no signs of a plateau any time soon. A significant part of the data generated is related to or produced by us as users of services. This can be worrying as companies have shown that they are willing to use whatever resources they can for profit and innovation. In a particularly troubling example of this, according to a Reuters report, Meta faced allegations of using thousands of pirated books, including works by prominent authors such as Sarah Silverman and Michael Chabon, to train its AI language model, Llama, without permission. Despite internal legal warnings about the potential copyright infringement, Meta proceeded with using the copyrighted material. If companies see copyright – or privacy – related lawsuits as a potential cost of developing AI systems, it raises a very real concern about how our data can be used. 

What can universities do? 

All is not lost, yet. As mentioned above, students can be one of the most powerful forces for change in society. A big step towards empowering students would be to improve their digital literacy, especially in relation to privacy and data. Currently, the students who would meet this requirement are in a field related to either policy making or IT development, whose courses cover the necessary information to make informed decisions. However, these services and platforms are used by the vast majority, if not all, of the student body, with unclear consequences for some of us. At the end of the day, it is not a problem if you like using Instagram a lot. As long as you realize that it is not free. 

Of course, universities can also help standardize autonomy practices. As established institutions in the world, they can organize hackathons and collaborations with small companies. But only by giving most if not all students a robust understanding of how and which data is collected, and what it can be used for, changes can be made in the current frameworks. By providing society enough people with digital literacy related topics such as privacy, the university can almost guarantee better practices moving forward.

Moving forward

Data will play a big part in what the next 50 years will look like, both for technology and society. We as younger generations need to be well prepared to deal with potential problems that could arise from either the misuse or abuse of data. When sufficiently educated, we have seen groups of students raise their voices in defense of privacy, exemplified by the recent protests at Carnegie Mellon University and the City of Pittsburgh, where activists called for a ban on facial recognition technology. While a significant proportion of students engage extensively with social media platforms and online learning environments, their attitudes towards privacy are far from indifferent. Research indicates a discernible increase in privacy concerns among students, coupled with a critical awareness of the risks associated with data sharing and online engagement.

It is clear that students care about privacy, so equipping as many of them as possible with knowledge will give them an added degree of agency. With these factors in mind, the university can have a clear objective for the generations of students who will be impacting society and the marketplace in the coming years.

As Winston Churchill said: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job”.

About the author

Victor Toma

Victor Toma is a second year student at the Data Science and Society bachelor