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WVU law professor to present award-winning policy paper

MORGANTOWN — WVU Law professor and ASPIRE office director Amy Cyphert’s article, “Tinker-ing with Machine Learning: The Legality and Consequences of Online Surveillance of Students,” has been selected for the prestigious Privacy Papers for Policymakers award.

Cyphert will present her paper at the Future of Privacy Forum’s 11th annual Privacy Papers for Policymakers virtual event from 1-3 p.m. Feb. 10. The event is sponsored by Congressional Privacy Congress, and Cyphert will present her article to congressional and administrative staff, and international policymakers. 

“The academic work that we highlight at Privacy Papers for Policymakers is research and analysis we think is the most practical and could be the most influential with policymakers,” said John Verdi, vice president of policy at the Future of Privacy Forum.

Cyphert’s article explores legal challenges of monitoring student’s online behavior outside of the classroom. This topic includes a look into software companies providing tools to schools to monitor students’ social media. 

She said these tools are intended to help predict things such as violence, but may also come with negative consequences.

“I don’t think we have any good data that that type of surveillance actually works [or] that it keeps students safe,” Cyphert said.

The implications Cyphert addresses include the disparity that exists between which students are most often disciplined in school. She said students of color are more likely to be disciplined for certain speech, which contributes to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The “school-to-prison pipeline” is the correlation between harsh disciplinary action in schools, leading youth and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds to become disproportionately incarcerated. Cyphert said she became concerned with how machine-learning technology would complicate this trend further. 

Cyphert began writing the paper in 2019, and had it published in early 2020. As students began transitioning to online-learning platforms at the start of COVID-19, Cyphert’s paper became even more relevant.

“So many students around the country and around the world are learning online,” Cyphert said. “It’s, I think, more relevant than ever, this idea of what are schools’ sort of abilities, how should they monitor [students], what does the constitution say about disciplining students in this way, and other things like that.” 

Cyphert initially had the paper published in the Nevada Law Journal as part of her research. Winning the award actually came as a surprise to Cyphert, because she was not aware someone had nominated her.

“It turned out, someone I don’t know had nominated me,” Cyphert said. “It was really a 100 percent surprise. I hadn’t known I’d been nominated, so I was shocked to find out I had won.”

Verdi said more than 100 articles are nominated each year, with five or six winners selected after a rigorous judging process. 

“We think it is a timely issue,” Verdi said. “It is a sophisticated analysis and has a lot to say about what equities lawmakers and regulators ought to be weighing as they consider their responses to these issues.”

Cyphert has written several articles on topics such as racial disparities in expulsion within school systems as early on as in preschool. Since publishing her award-winning article, she has written several papers on artificial intelligence and algorithmic decision making. 

She now also leads a class on artificial intelligence and algorithms at the WVU College of Law. 

“I just think it is so important to make sure lawyers and judges are aware of these issues,” Cyphert said. “And that we can understand them well enough to not only advocate for our clients, but also to make sure the decisions are good decisions.”

The virtual event is free to attend. More information and registration can be found by visiting

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