Mar 092011

There’s a lot more I’d like to know about the details of this incident, but it sounds like although Fuzhou University denies a privacy breach, their actions really do sound privacy-invasive. China Daily/Asia News Network reports:

Students at Fuzhou University have recently received a questionnaire in which they were asked to respond using their real names to inquiries about their private matters.

The questions included “Are you dating anyone now?” and “Where is your partner from?”. The form also asked students to report quarrels they had had with their significant others.

After being posted on Fuzhou University’s online forum, a picture of the “register your relationship” questionnaire spread on the Internet, drawing public criticism over the institution’s alleged invasion of the students’ privacy.

“I think the school’s behavior was just ridiculous and pathetic,” an anonymous student from Fuzhou University said, “as if we’re really going to tell them the truth.”

In response to critics, the university denied having a policy asking students to participate in “relationship registration”. It said the forms were released by a group of students who thought the questions offered a good means of learning about the relationships of their classmates.

Okay. Now based on the above I thought that meant that the university did not send out the questionnaire to the students. Of course, that raises the question of what the recipients saw on the questionnaire as the sender – did it appear to be the university? In any event, the university’s denial is somewhat contradicted later in the news coverage where it describes the impetus to the survey being a recent student suicide:

Fuzhou University then adopted a series of measures meant to help students deal with emotional turmoil. To better prepare for such crises, it began collecting information on the relationships of students.

“The survey was not mandatory, nor very effective,” Ge said. “As you can see most students took it as a joke.”

You can read the full news report on AsiaOne, but now it sounds like the university did send out the survey. Maybe the idea came from a group of well-intentioned students, but if the university sent it out, then they have some responsibility here.

The news coverage mentions that the university “carries out a psychological test on some 5,000 freshmen every year.” Perhaps they mean well, but if you screen freshman for psychological health or problems, is it really any significant leap to intrusive questions about their relationships? And did it say on the survey that it was wholly voluntary on the students’ part and that there would be no contact or follow-up if students chose not to complete the survey?

Fuzhou University may assert that there’s no privacy breach here, but if they sent out the questionnaire that was described, then it does sound privacy-invasive to this mental health professional and privacy advocate.  Maybe it all comes down to what they mean by a privacy “breach.” At the very least, the university should acknowledge that the survey is privacy-invasive.

Sometimes the road to privacy hell is paved with good intentions. When schools try to help students by screening for mental health problems, they may take the first step into medical and mental health privacy quicksand. That seems to be what happened here. I hope the university schedules meetings with students who are privacy-conscious to talk about alternative approaches to trying to protect the mental health of students.

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