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KU plot to ‘snoop’ on graduates

By Elena Cherubini Nov 27, 2017
Penrhyn Road Campus.

Graduates have been left furious after it emerged Kingston University has sent details of hundreds of thousands of former students’ records to private companies to “snoop” on them.

The university has sent 796,500 records to wealth screening firms since 2006 – more than any other university in the country – to gather financial information about alumni before they are asked to donate to the institution.

Graduates can then be ranked according to their wealth based on home values, pensions, charity donations and the value of any shares they hold, as well as the likelihood that they would donate money to the university.

The Kingston data requests related to 172,000 alumni many of whom were screened repeatedly.

A spokesman for the university said it took data protection seriously and complied with regulations on requests.

However, former students and campaigners were left outraged by what they claimed was a breach of their privacy.

Several KU graduates told The River that the university never asked them for permission to send their financial data to these firms.

History graduate Hayden Collins said: “It’s a joke. If they did this, they certainly did not ask and wouldn’t get my permission. That is a lot of influential information and potentially exploitative.”

KU biology graduate, Hollie Goodridge, said she has been called more than five times by the University since her graduation last summer and was not aware that her data had been shared.

“I am not happy about it,” she said.

Journalism graduate Claire Gilbody Dickerson said she had no idea that the university might have shared her data.

“It’s worrying that my personal data is being shared with a stranger third party,” she said.

The information on how the university might share your data is available on its website. However, The River found the relevant detail buried in a paragraph on how the University will “enhance” your data.

When informed about the university’s activities, KU civil engineering graduate Giovanni Zanchi described the university as “sons of bitches”.

Zanchi was very angry because he claimed he was not informed about the relevant section on the website, despite later admitting not having read the fine print when enrolling.

An investigation revealed that at least 90 universities in the UK have sent their alumni’s records to wealth screening firms.

Another graduate said: “It’s outrageous. I cannot believe they would do that.”

Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “concerned” about the revelations while Tory MP Philip Hollobone said: “Alumni will be very concerned that their personal details appear to be available to all and sundry.”

The Information Commissioner Office (ICO), an independent watchdog which monitors the use of information, is to examine the universities’ activities to establish whether they breached data protection laws after failing to inform alumni.

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “Personal data belongs to the individual and that means they have the right to make choices about how it is used. The law requires organisations to tell people what it’s going to be used for and who it’s going to be shared with and that’s what people expect.”

According to the Act, profiling people for fundraising purposes is not illegal but people should be informed on how their data is being treated.

The ICO told The River that if Kingston was found guilty of breaching the Data Protection Act, consequences could range from a fine of up to £500,000 to criminal prosecution.

Kingston admitted sharing records with these companies but claimed it held to strict data protection clauses.

A spokesperson for Kingston University said: “A total of more than £700,000 has been donated to the University over the past two years by alumni.

“All money raised from alumni donations goes entirely towards funding student-facing projects. These include scholarships, hardship grants, care leaver bursaries, internships and supporting elements of the entrepreneurship programme.

“The university takes data protection very seriously and regularly reviews its policies to ensure they are in line with best practice.

“The university’s alumni and friends privacy policy is published on its website and it details how the university may use information about its alumni, including in connection with fundraising activity, and outlines instances in which the university may share data with external companies. Alumni are able to opt out at any time should they wish.”

The Fundraising Regulator told The River it is committed to help universities make positive changes in the way they handle personal data, ahead of new laws which will come in force from May 2018.

Sam Barnett, from the Fundraising Regulator, said: “As exempt charities, universities have a responsibility to maintain public trust. This includes obeying a legal duty to inform someone if their personal data is being processed, and to respect the rights of individuals who do not want their data to be used for direct marketing or fundraising.

“New laws coming into force next May, the General Data Protection Regulation, give individuals new rights over how their personal information is used so universities and charities must review how they use personal data.”

The Institute of Fundraising (IoF) backed the universities’ practice explaining that the research was an important part of fundraising.

IoF head of policy, Daniel Fluskey, said: “Time and again, evidence shows that individuals want and expect that fundraisers have an understanding about them and so are able to ask for their support in the right way, tailored to their interests and ability to donate.

“The only way that this sort of excellent fundraising is possible is through research.”

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) that works with the university “best practice” for fundraising also supported the institutions.

Tricia King, CASE vice president, said: “In our experience universities take the privacy of their alumni and other philanthropists very seriously.”

KU students are hired as fundraisers which requires them to call alumni and ask for donations after outlining the University’s projects.

Through telephone campaigns started in 2007 and running twice a year, Kingston has raised more than £1m.

In the Spring of 2017, the alumni donated £83,965 with the money used to fund bursaries and scholarships.

Kingston said that the money raised was used to help students from a low socio-economic background.

One of the firms hired by some of the universities to investigate their alumni’s finances is called Prospection for Gold and among its services offers “research, wealth screening and consultancy to make fundraising effective and successful”.

Director of Business Development Kerry Rock said: “For twenty years we have helped charities and not for profit organisations research their supporters so they can build relationships and work together better. There is nothing secretive or hidden about this and there cannot be many alumni who do not expect their university to ask them for a gift later in life.

“The research we do is lawful. The UK’s robust data protection laws ensure that everyone’s personal data is managed fairly and proportionately.”

The Department for Education said: “Fundraising must be done in line with the law. An individual’s personal data is protected by statute, and I understand the Information Commissioner, as the responsible regulator, is looking into this issue.”

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