For Your Eyes Only

New Rule Enforces Confidentiality at Concordia

A new Concordia regulation requires people attending certain thesis defenses at the university to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The rule was approved by the Council for the School of Graduate Studies on Oct. 18 but became the object of controversy at a Feb. 19 Concordia Senate meeting.

“It seems to me that that’s a very strange thing for a public university to be involved with,” said professor David Douglas at the meeting. “It imposes a barrier between students and professors.”

A number of thesis supervisors in Concordia’s Engineering and Computer Science departments are engaged in research funded by private companies. In most cases, these professors are under contractual obligation to keep the findings of their research confidential to prevent rival companies from gaining a competitive advantage. Students participating in this research are also bound to a non-disclosure agreement.

During the Feb. 19 Senate meeting, Douglas and a number of other senators criticized the university’s partnership with private corporations for research projects.

“I think corporations have to realize that if they want their research to be private there are plenty of private think tanks they can go to,” said Douglas. “Let’s not kid ourselves, [private corporations] are not doing us any favours. They are gaining access to cheap labour and the minds of the next generation.”

Concordia Provost David Graham defended the confidentiality agreements as “just a fact of life.”

“Students achieve great enrichment through close direct contact with industrial partners,” he said. “These confidentiality agreements are just a reality of business.”

Mourad Debbadi, director of the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering, said the confidentiality agreements were necessary if students want to gain access to real-world experience.

Debbadi is also the vice president of the National Cyber Forensics Training Alliance, a cyber-crime fighting squad that partners Concordia with companies like Microsoft, Bell Canada, Rogers Communications and law enforcement agencies across Canada.

“We have access to internet service provider data that is sensitive,” said Debbadi. “So it’s necessary to maintain a level of confidentiality.”

Still, Graham and Debbadi’s claims were met with some level of skepticism from other senators.

“Who gets to decide what is secret?” asked Douglas. “Companies have very expansive agendas in what they consider private.”

Robert Sonin and Rusdia Mehreen, who represent graduate students on Senate, also questioned the use of non-disclosure agreements as too common.

“My concern is that it’s almost becoming normal for confidentiality to be applied,” said Sonin. “Research should be open; confidentiality should only be used in extreme situations.”

Although Senate had no say in the implementation of the new rule, professor William Lynch said that Senate would take the matter to the Planning Priorities Committee to ensure the School of Graduate Studies regulates the use of confidentiality agreements.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 24, published March 7, 2011.