Piazza privacy concerns push some professors to other discussion forums

Oct. 4, 2020, 11:52 p.m.

The online platform Piazza currently hosts online discussion forums for around 100 Stanford courses, giving thousands of students the opportunity to remotely ask and answer questions about course material — many of whom are unaware that they have consented to sharing their data to third parties. 

When students create a profile through Piazza, they can also opt in to a secondary service, Piazza Network, a platform that enables third-party employers within the Piazza Network to scout potential hires. This gives students and employers the ability to interact on Piazza, but also gives Piazza Network companies access to student data before students are aware a company is interested in them. 

When asked if Piazza shares student data with prospective employers who are members of Piazza Network, Caitlin McGarry, head of university engagement at Piazza, redirected The Daily to Piazza Network’s Frequently Asked Questions. The page states that students’ courses taken on Piazza and role in the class, as well as information they fill in on their profile, is shared with employers. Piazza’s terms of service also says that students who join Piazza Network consent to the release of information in their profile to companies.

In spring 2020, several computer science professors transitioned their class discussion from Piazza to Ed, a digital learning platform with a centralized Q&A interface akin to Piazza. 

“Many instructors in the CS department have been looking for an alternative to Piazza due to the privacy issues with Piazza’s business model,” wrote computer science professor Cynthia Lee in the spring 2020 Ed forum for CS 103. 

Students in CS 106A, CS 106B, CS 107 and CS 109 used Ed in spring 2020. 

On the other hand, computer science professor Chris Gregg said that he made the switch from Piazza to Ed solely for user experience and usability reasons. Gregg said that he has used Piazza in his classes for the past eight or nine years. 

“I think Piazza in general is a very good platform,” Gregg said in an interview with The Daily. “For me, [switching to Ed] wasn’t about privacy issues.” However, he added, “I don’t want students to get their data used in a way that doesn’t make sense to them.” 

“We see privacy as paramount to education,” said Ed founder Scott Maxwell in an interview with The Daily. “[Our privacy policy] clearly states that we are not in the business of selling your information — this is not something we’re interested in or ever will be,” Maxwell added. “Our business model is aligned with that. We’re a product company. “

Ed does not currently have relationships with the University or certain academic departments; rather, the decision to use Ed is completely dependent on individual Stanford professors. 

Stepan Sharkov ’23, a student in Lee’s CS 103 class in spring quarter, was not suspicious of Piazza’s privacy policy prior to that spring. However, after learning about the concerns regarding Piazza’s privacy policy via Lee’s post in the CS 103 Ed forum, Sharkov also expressed confusion about Stanford’s widespread use of Piazza despite privacy issues. 

“Why is there not a campus-wide transition to Ed if [Piazza] has privacy violations?” Sharkov asked. 

Around 100 Stanford courses utilized the Piazza Q&A forum in the 2019 fall quarter, according to Judith Romero, senior director of communications and marketing in the Office of the Vice Provost for Technology & Learning.  Enrollment in these classes ranged from just a few students to more than 600. 

According to the Piazza Recruiting webpage aimed at companies seeking to recruit student employees, talented university students are “engaging on Piazza before they’re actively looking [for a job].” Piazza Network is advertised as a talent network that companies can use to run “skill-based searches” of potential hires using “proprietary course enrollment data.” In other words, when students opt in to the Piazza Network, their information is made available to employers who have signed up for the Network. 

That information includes details that students fill out directly in their Piazza profile, which can include university attended, graduation year, major, awards, classes taken on Piazza, job experience and skills, which the platform can share to companies scouting for student hires. 

Companies like Groupon, Qualcomm, Intuit, Intel and Salesforce are using Piazza to actively search for new talent.

The revenue stream from companies who pay to join the network allows Piazza to remain free of charge for students and professors, reads the Piazza website.

According to McGarry, the companies in Piazza Network range from “small tech startups to Fortune 500 companies.” 

“Many of the companies we work with use Piazza for their diversity initiatives,” McGarry wrote in an email to The Daily, “such as a targeted focus on hiring underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields.” 

One student, a symbolic systems major, said she filled out her Piazza profile with additional information about companies she previously worked at and personal projects she has completed. She filled out this information during recruiting season earlier this year, knowing companies would see her profile. 

“I wasn’t aware of Piazza Network, but I did know that third-party companies were somehow viewing my profile,” she wrote in an email to The Daily. “I assumed that Computer Forum companies were being given access as part of their contract, but realized that it wasn’t the case when I started getting contacted by non-Forum companies.” 

She then removed this additional information once recruiting season passed, citing “data privacy” concerns. 

Stanford established a data privacy agreement with Piazza in early 2017, Romero wrote in an email to The Daily. The contractual agreement “includes appropriate provisions to protect the interests of the university, its staff and its students — including provisions that specifically protect student data.” According to Romero, the University is unaware of any instances of breaches in Stanford student data privacy. 

Romero emphasized that the agreement between Stanford and Piazza includes rigorous terms prohibiting Piazza from sharing student data, unless “clear, explicit, and informed consent from the student is obtained by Piazza,” she wrote. 

Any violations to the contract, she added, are grounds for termination. 

“The University’s lawyers have bought off on it in that it doesn’t break any FERPA regulations and so forth,” Gregg added. “That said, I think Piazza is trying to make money, and they’re doing that now.” 

Gregg said he believes Piazza Careers is an added benefit to many students. 

“Piazza can serve as a very good bridge towards getting some students interviews and so forth,” Gregg said. 

He also added that he has given feedback to Piazza regarding improvements to usability and clarification on the privacy policy. “I asked them to be a little more explicit about some of the privacy concerns that [students] had,” Gregg said. 

“It’s like LinkedIn but messed up,” said Cecilia Xia ’23, who enrolled in CS 106A, a class that uses Piazza. Xia said she didn’t remember having signed up for the service or ever learning what it entailed.

Maggie Roache ’21 signed up for Piazza when she took CS 106A as a sophomore. However, she was not aware of the secondary Piazza Network service and did not recall the terms of consent with regards to sharing data with potential employers. 

“I thought Piazza was a Stanford-specific platform, like Carta,” Roache said. “I wasn’t aware that my profile would be viewed by companies looking for potential employees.” 

Prior to December 2016, the opt-in checkbox for Piazza Network was pre-checked. 

According to McGarry, Piazza partnered with Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost to “ensure Piazza’s signup flow is both clear and intuitive to students.” 

“It just concerns me that that data is somehow being used in a way that you would never think about the first time you log in to Piazza,” said Jennifer King, director of privacy at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. “It just seems like one way to introduce surveillance into people’s lives so that there are fewer spaces for you to just be authentic or take risks or ask questions that are challenging … We maybe don’t want to share [that] with who you want to work for four years later.” 

Piazza’s website states that Q&A class posts are not shared with employers. Romero declined to comment on the type of data Piazza collects from Stanford students. 

In the past, Piazza has come under fire from various universities over its information privacy practices. For example, the University of California, Davis has placed Piazza under review after having previously “disapproved [of Piazza] due to information privacy concerns.”

However, Piazza maintains that its service benefits student users and that only opted-in data is available to recruiters within the Piazza Network.

“We at Piazza take our obligations to our community of students, professors, and institutions of higher education very seriously,” reads the Piazza FERPA Compliance webpage. “We cherish and safeguard the privacy of our community — and have always built and upheld those protections.”

Another point of contention is Piazza’s use of students’ demographic information. The company advertises how recruiters can filter students by things like race, gender and sexuality, purportedly allowing scouts to “engage diverse talent in ways [they] never could before.”

But, King said, “Even if the employers are not making decisions based on those things, the fact [is] that they’ve been given … data that directly leads into … categories that you are prohibited from considering. It seems unwise for them to accept that data.”

Yet for some, Piazza remains an important classroom tool.

“Many of the students who ask questions on Piazza just wouldn’t get the opportunity to ask them otherwise. Maybe they couldn’t make it to office hours; maybe they didn’t get the chance to talk to a TA because it was so crowded in class. Now they can get answers to their questions 24 hours a day online,” wrote senior chemistry lecturer Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann on the Piazza website.

Romero said that while students may elect to take advantage of secondary and optional services such as Piazza Network, they should be properly informed about the terms and conditions associated with each service. 

“If students suspect or become aware of any unauthorized data sharing,” Romero wrote, “it should be brought to VPTL’s attention as soon as possible.” 

This article has been updated to reflect that the third-party companies have access to the data on student profiles are those within the Piazza Network.

Vincent Chim contributed reporting.

Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Alex Tsai ’21 is a senior staff writer for The Daily. Previous roles at The Daily include news desk editor and mobile app developer. Alex is majoring in Computer Science and is a member of the varsity lacrosse team.

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