Successful Academia-Intelligence Agency Classroom Collaboration Raises Ethical Concerns

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Academia-intelligence agency partnerships in classrooms must be carefully conducted.
Academia-intelligence agency partnerships in classrooms must be carefully conducted.

Collaboration between the National Security Agency (NSA) and graduate political science students at North Carolina State University in the fall of 2015 proved successful in integrating ethical considerations and providing unique student learning opportunities, according to an article published in Science and Engineering Ethics.

The NSA established a 5-year partnership with North Carolina State University to create the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences (LAS). The mission of the LAS is to develop new collaborations among the NSA, academia, and industry to address challenging big-data problems involving intelligence collection and analysis.


Christopher Kampe, Professor in the Communication Rhetoric and Digital Media Program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and colleagues noted that academia-intelligence agency collaborations are increasing. One form of collaboration takes place in a classroom setting, with students standing in for intelligence analysts.

The collaboration focused on a sensing/self-tracing device — a journaling application (Journaling) — designed to help intelligence analysts better understand how individuals and teams make sense of information, accomplish tasks, and develop analytic workflows with big data. The NSA was hoping to use this knowledge to improve analytic tradecraft and confidence in intelligence products.


Journaling is installed on a computer not only to track activity and capture simple time on task, but also to understand the activities users are engaged with, and ultimately, when paired with novel recommendation software, to suggest resources such as datasets, articles, or strategies for approaching problems to help intelligence analysts produce threat assessments. To refine Journaling, the designers needed input from students who stood in for the ultimate intended users — intelligence analysts. Researchers at the university then surveyed students and instructors to identify social, ethical, and pedagogic concerns.

Student and faculty concerns with the collaboration between the university and the NSA involved privacy issues, particularly if the software was installed on a student's personal laptop, and potential ulterior motives on the part of the NSA. Some of the privacy issues were addressed by using computers supplied by the LAS. Another concern was the degree to which the collaboration added to or distracted from the primary goal of the class, which was to educate the students.

The post-semester focus group and interviews showed that students found working with members of the intelligence community relieved some of their fears regarding the ultimate goal of the NSA in this project by putting a human face on what is often seen as an intimidating organization. As many have aspirations to join the intelligence community, many students also found the project a natural fit for them.

However, given these student aspirations, the authors of the article expressed concern that the involvement of the NSA in this project created both a special kind of benefit and a special kind of vulnerability for the students involved in the experiment.

The authors developed a number of key recommendations for others considering such collaborations:

  • Use research methods and experimental designs that consider ethical perspectives to benefit study participants and other stakeholders
  • Protect privacy and maintain transparency
  • Provide students with alternative means of meeting course requirements if they object to participating in the collaboration
  • Develop and deploy a prototype into a classroom setting to maximize student learning and meet research objectives
  • Obtain all necessary internal review board approvals
  • Be sensitive to the user population and the social and ethical concerns they may have with how the technology and its data may be used 


Kampe C, Reid G, Jones P, CS, SS, Vogel KM. Bringing the National Security Agency into the classroom: ethical reflections on academia-intelligence agency partnerships [published online January 9, 2018]. Sci Eng Ethics. doi:10.1007/s11948-017-9938-7

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