Sybil Low by Sybil Low

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that faculty and experts in higher education have raised concerns and questions over Zoom’s changing stances on using customer data to train its artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning systems. The teleconferencing company tried to update its terms and conditions, which was followed by a quick reversal. This led to public outrage and uncertainty in academic circles.

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Key Takeaways

  • Faculty members and experts were alarmed by Zoom’s announcement that it would have access to all user data for AI training.
  • The vagueness of what constitutes “consent” in the new terms and conditions and the rush to include language regarding AI has led to growing confusion and concerns about privacy.
  • Universities may have the power to negotiate their own contracts with Zoom, possibly laying down more specific rules around the use of Zoom’s services.

Earlier this week, Zoom announced an update to its terms and conditions, which allowed it to access all customer data for training its AI and machine learning systems. The faculty members instantly responded and many publicly shared their outrage on X (the social media formerly known as Twitter).

Sukrit Venkatagiri, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Swarthmore College, expressed his concern, saying,

“We’ve become so dependent on things like Zoom and that dependence allows them to change things without consulting its users.”

The company was quick to reverse course after the outcry, clarifying its stance on user consent.

The dubiety surrounding what constitutes “consent” in Zoom’s updated terms has raised questions about the broader implications of tech firms monetizing data for AI.

“All these companies want to monetize this data for AI,” said Sean Hogle, an attorney specializing in commercial data and intellectual property law, noting that tech firms are realizing they are “sitting on a potential gold mine.”

These changes became much inconvenient for higher education representatives. Jim McGrath, an instructional designer at the Center for Teaching Innovation at Salem State University, observed:

“The fact this is happening in early August where some universities have been teaching or making plans shows the disregard of core educational values we’re trying to foster and encourage here.”

Negotiating Power of Universities

Some institutions, like Swarthmore College, have their own contracts with Zoom. This can potentially allow them to set more stringent terms regarding privacy. According to Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, larger universities may have “legitimate power that individuals don’t necessarily have,” giving them the opportunity to negotiate specific rules around Zoom’s services.

In the meantime, faculty are pushing for open communication with administrators and IT officials so they are not left responsible for examining technology on their own.

Looking Forward

With AI continuing to spread through various aspects of life, companies may change their approach to this technology, especially due to the recent backlash towards Zoom. More explicit language may be expected in future terms and conditions.

Darren Laur, chief training officer at White Hatter, emphasized that it’s important to understand the privacy issues associated with third-party platforms, as others look toward building their own platforms.

As Quay-de la Vallee summarized, the situation is “inevitable,” but the incident with Zoom may lead to a positive step towards more transparency in how tech companies plan to leverage AI.


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