Ethical Implications Of Using Sensors To Collect Data Regarding Students In Higher Education

Ethical Theory Analysis

In this essay, the case of the University of Arizona will be discussed to understand the ethical implications of using sensors to collect data regarding students for the research of the organisation. The importance of ethical principles has grown significantly along with the risk of cyber threats on the private data of individuals. The University of Arizona has given CatCards to its students that are used by them for entering and exiting from different locations in the campus. This data is collected by the university in order to determine the reason for the retention of 20 percent of students who did not join the campus in the second year. The data include private information regarding students such as their routines, hangout places, friends, and others (Raicu, 2018).

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While sending the date for research, the university ensures that the data is anonymous; however, the personal details might share with academic advisers of the students. The university is also planning to install 8,000 Wi-Fi hubs on the campus to improve the accuracy of the data collection process which will result in providing more accurate results (Blue, 2018). This data is collected by the university from the first day of the students, and it continues for three years. Most students did not know about this data collection process, and the university did not give them the option to opt out of this research (Jess, 2018). This essay will evaluate whether it is ethical for the university to collect this data about their students and whether it raised any privacy and security concerns. This essay will apply utilitarianism, deontology, virtue and contract ethical theory to evaluate the ethical dilemma raised in this case.

The utilitarianism theory is a part of normative ethical theories which judges the morality of a situation based on its consequences. The key element of the theory provides that individuals and entities should focus on the greater good of a greater number of people. This theory analyses the consequences of a situation while determining whether the actions of a party are ethical or unethical (Craft, 2013). The key stakeholders in this case study include the university and students. The objective of the university to collect the data of the student is to find out the reason for the attrition rates of the students. Around 20 percent of the students did not join the second year in the university, and the university wanted to find out the reason for the same by collecting the data of students. However, the consequences of this research can be disastrous since the privacy and security of students can be breached by third parties. Although the data of students are anonymous, however, the identity is revealed to the academic advisers of the students. It violates the privacy of students without their knowledge since most of them are unaware of this research. The main objective is the benefit of the university by retaining more students which contradicts with the elements of utilitarianism approach since the greater good of a greater number of people is not considered by the university. The consequences could be catastrophic if the sensitive data of students leaked; therefore, this decision is unethical as per this theory.


The deontology ethics is another ethical theory which is the part of the normative ethical theories. As per this perspective, the morality of actions is defined as right or wrong based on compliance with a series of rules rather than the consequences of the actions (Al-Aidaros, Shamsudin & Idris, 2013). The elements of this theory provide that a maxim should be defined which defines whether the actions of individuals are good or bad. As per this theory, the research conducted by the University of Arizona is unethical. As per EDUCAUSE Review, an ethical framework is necessary to be maintained by the parties since they are responsible for using the data of students in higher education (Raicu, 2018). A key principle provides that the transparency should be maintained by the parties while collecting the data of individuals. The university has breached this element because it failed to maintain clear representations regarding the nature and extent of the information which is collected by the institution along with third-party organisations. Secondly, it failed to explicate the way in which the information is being accessed. Lastly, the university failed to review the information through a clearly articulated governance process. The students who did not want to be a part of this research should have the option to opt out. Based on these factors, actions of the university are unethical.

Virtue ethics theory focuses on the moral character or virtues of the party rather than actions (deontology) or consequences (utilitarianism) of the actions while accessing the morality. It is also referred as a character-based approach which provides that people acquire virtues through practice and life experiences. As per Aristotle’s approach, the parties are required to practise good virtues in order to develop a moral character which includes honesty, generosity, bravery, fairness, integrity, and others (Crossan, Mazutis & Seijts, 2013). In this case, the university has not acted with good virtues based on which the decision to conduct research on private data of students is unethical. Firstly, the university has failed to maintain honesty while collecting the data and maintaining transparency in the overall process. Secondly, it has breached the integrity by not providing an option for students to opt out of the research. Due to these bad virtues, the actions of the university are considered as unethical.

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The Contractarianism or the contract theory provides that parties should comply with the set of rules of governs their behaviour in the society. Human beings have developed ideal social contracts which govern their behaviour to ensure that they act rationally and ethically (Luetge, Armbruster & Muller, 2016). Based on the principles of this theory, the decision taken by the university to research on its students is unethical. As per the social contracts, it is important that the university maintains transparency and disclosure to its students that it is collecting their private data. It should have also given them the option to opt out of the research if they did not want to share their private information. Since the university failed to comply with these elements, the research taken by it is unethical which resulted in breaching various social contracts.


The main purpose of the research conducted by the University of Arizona is to find out why many students did not continue their academic studies after first year. However, the method used by the university has raised many ethical concerns. Firstly, it is wrong for the university to collect the sensitive data of its students because it raised many privacy and security concerns. The process and purpose of the data collection process are not defined by the university to its students as well. Most of them are unaware that their data is used for the purpose of this study from the first day on the campus. Moreover, the university did not give the option to its students to prevent their data from accessing by the university. In case this data is collected by the cyber criminals, then it can result in violating the privacy of students. Therefore, the decision of this research is unethical, and the university should change its policies to maintain transparency and providing the option for students to stop their private data from accessing by the university.


In conclusion, the case study of the University of Arizona is analysed to understand the ethical issues relating to privacy and security raised in this case. As per the ethical theories including utilitarianism, deontology, virtue, and contract, the actions of the university are unethical. The main ethical issue is raised due to the lack of transparency maintained by the university. Moreover, the university has not given a choice to its students so that they can avoid the research by stopping the university from collecting their data. If the private data of students is leaked to third parties with ill intentions, then the students have to face negative consequences. Thus, the university should establish an ethical framework by defining the process in which the data of students is collected by them along with its purpose. It should also allow them to avoid the research if they did not prefer to share their private information to comply with ethical principles.


Al-Aidaros, A. H., Shamsudin, F. M., & Idris, K. M. (2013). Ethics and ethical theories from an Islamic perspective. International Journal of Islamic Thought, 4, 1.

Blue, A. (2018). Researcher Looks at ‘Digital Traces’ to Help Students. Retrieved from

Craft, J. L. (2013). A review of the empirical ethical decision-making literature: 2004–2011. Journal of business ethics, 117(2), 221-259.

Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., & Seijts, G. (2013). In search of virtue: The role of virtues, values and character strengths in ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 113(4), 567-581.

Jess, S. (2018). Student ID Card Research Raises Privacy Concerns. Retrieved from

Luetge, C., Armbruster, T., & Müller, J. (2016). Order ethics: Bridging the gap between contractarianism and business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 136(4), 687-697.

Raicu, I. (2018). Students and Sensors: Data, education, privacy, and research. Retrieved from