Pomona pulls student and alumni information from networking app due to privacy concerns

A college student holds a phone up to the camera, the screen displays the Pomona College Sagehen Connect app.
Pomona College students are concerned about the Sagehen Connect app making their location and contact information so public. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Curious about your roommate’s address? What about a famous alum’s cell phone number?

Until this week, any Pomona College student could log on to the school’s networking app, Sagehen Connect, and find personal data about students or alumni who had not expressly requested they be removed. 

In response to concerns about privacy raised by students in interviews with TSL, Pomona removed some personal information including street addresses, work addresses and phone numbers, according to senior director of advancement services and information systems Nadine Francis. 

The college also plans to launch a new version of the app in fall 2020 in part in response to privacy concerns about the previous version of the app.

Before this week, Sagehen Connect made alumni’s and students’ home addresses, work addresses and phone numbers available to any student using the app, often without the prior knowledge of the individuals in question. The list included well-known alumni like Sen. Brian Schatz PO ’94, D-Hawaii, and Mike Budenholzer PO ’92 — the head coach of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks — as well as presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who attended Pomona for two years.

I just thought it was pretty strange that someone could look up my home address without me knowing that was out there.” – Nathan Stringham PO ’20

Students could also access other current students’ home addresses and phone numbers, although alumni could not access this information.

And a “nearby” function allowed users to search for alumni by location and view mapped results showing where alumni live and work.

Nathan Stringham PO ’20 said he had no idea his home address was accessible to fellow students until he heard about Sagehen Connect from a friend.

I didn’t know where the app came from; I hadn’t heard much about it before,” Stringham said. “I just thought it was pretty strange that someone could look up my home address without me knowing that was out there.” 

Now, all that is displayed by default is class year, major, name of employer, graduate school, city and state, according to Francis. The school retracted all users’ street addresses, home addresses and phone numbers.

“The purpose of Sagehen Connect is to provide a digital directory of contact information for alumni and students to assist with career networking and staying connected within the Pomona alumni community,” interim vice president for advancement Robin Trozpek said.

The information provided in profiles is pulled from Pomona’s constituent records database, populated with information provided by alumni and/or retrieved from student records, according to Francis. 

Previously, students and alumni had to specifically request that their information be removed, according to Trozpek. 

“We have anticipated the growing concerns about digital information generally … which is one of the reasons we are migrating to a new software platform later this month that displays fewer data points by default and provides alums with more control as to what they choose to make available,” Francis said. “Any [alumni] may request at any time to be removed completely from the online app.”

Of approximately 26,000 alumni, Pomona has received roughly 200 “opt out” requests over the past seven or eight years, Francis said.

Some who asked to opt out voiced concerns about their data being presented in the app, according to Francis. In each of those cases, contact information was hidden and removed immediately. 

Approximately 100 alumni opted out when they were emailed about the launch and the information that would be provided in 2011, Francis said.

Pomona started its plan to transition to a new platform in summer 2019, as part of Pomona’s plan to switch the database over to a new vendor and continue to address privacy concerns, according to Trozpek. 

When TSL contacted Pomona about the information available on the site, the college decided to retract personal information earlier than planned, Francis said. 

“In the intervening years since Sagehen Connect’s launch, the climate surrounding data has changed, and in light of this trend, a new directory project was initiated this past summer to shift the alumni directory to a new platform vendor,” Trozpek said. Part of this project included revisiting and revising the policy of providing all contact information by default.”

The new platform, serviced by Graduway, is set to roll out in early December. It will only provide class year, major, name of employer and city and state by default, according to Francis. 

Prior to this week’s changes, many students weren’t even aware that their information was available, and they were also not notified about the latest changes.

Stringham said the new version of the app makes him more comfortable.

“I get the idea of connecting alumni and having a specific network just for alumni, I think that’s a great idea. But I just don’t see a reason why everybody should be able to get an address,” Stringham said. “There’s some information that you don’t need to give out just to everybody.”

Jay Scott PO ’22 has never used Sagehen Connect, but feels that it could be useful later on, and was not concerned about the level of personal information previously displayed.

“I don’t mind that it has personal [information],” Scott wrote in a message to TSL. “I feel like it’s a resource that could be useful later on, and I trust members of our community not to give out all my personal information.”

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