Dropbox Draws Academic Ire Over Data Sharing for Study

Posted on by Beth Negus Viveiros

File hosting service Dropbox came under scrutiny last week for sharing data on how research teams use collaborative platforms for a Northwestern University study.

The results of the study, published by the Harvard Business Review, raised red flags for some in the academic community for how it initially described the process: “Dropbox gave us access to project-folder-related data, which we aggregated and anonymized, for all the scientists using its platform over the period from May 2015 to May 2017—a group that represented 1,000 universities.”

A few days after initial publication the HBR article was edited to note that it was aggregated and anonymized prior to being given to researchers. Still, not everyone is happy. As Wired.com reports, the only consent Dropbox obtained from customers involved in the study was their agreement to its privacy policy and terms of service.

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Colorado University Boulder professor Casey Fiesler told Wired that even if the personal names are stripped from the data, the potential exists that folder titles and file structures could be used to identify individuals.

“Based on what I see in their TOS and privacy policy, and also the public reaction I’ve seen from other researchers who may well have had their data included in this study, their decision to provide data to outside researchers without user consent was a problem,” Fiesler told Wired.

The HBR article on the Dropbox survey reported initially that it looked at about 500,000 separate projects from roughly 400,000 unique users; it was later edited to say that data from 16,000 scientists was used.


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