Earlier today Chloe Hill, the president of the Students’ Association, sent an email to the student body about the drugs survey The Saint is currently running. The Saint is proudly independent of the Association, which of course is entitled to its views. However, the email has raised some concerns that we would like to address.

The main point of Ms Hill’s message was to warn students that The Saint‘s web server is collecting IP addresses. This is correct: servers on the internet routinely collect these addresses, which are used to identify computers and networks. But an IP address is not proof of identity. Not only is it simple to falsify or obscure your IP address, but they only identify machines – an IP address cannot reveal the individual who was using the computer at the time.

We are worried about substance abuse in St Andrews and whether enough is being done to deter it. If the survey justifies our fears, we will have valuable data with which to kickstart a public debate and pressure the Union, University and local authorities to do more.

It is very unfortunate that this misguided email from the Association may deter people from completing the survey and in turn hinder our efforts to solve this problem. We think an open discussion is in everyone’s interests and we resent any attempt to stifle it.

You can take the survey here.

25 COMMENTS

  1. I’d imagine the issue here is that Ms Hill does not want anything which will detract from the glorious reputation of our University and its students. She is scared of the possible results.

    Frankly her objection defies belief. If you followed her logic through you would never complete any online survey, or let’s face it even use the internet. It is a silly objection, and one which lacks fundamental credibility. It sounds more like a desperate attempt at creating unfounded fears to try and put people off from doing the survey.

    Damn, I just realised, someone has probably tracked me already from this post. I will be waiting for the knock at the door from a representative of the SA setting me straight….

  2. This is very poor form. It’s wonderful that The Saint is a vibrant and independent publication; unfortunately, casting inappropriate aspersions on the Students’ Association by implying that we’re unconcerned about drug use or other issues of student welfare is incredibly unprofessional and frankly insulting to the work that your student officers, Sabbs, and Union staff do.

    • Oh shut up Ali. First, the Union putting on a very sexist event. Now, they try and scare students from giving The Saint very important information.

      Shame on the Union.

      • There wasn’t any ‘scaring’, if you read the email. It simply informed students of a risk they could be taking. They’re free to take that risk if they so choose.
        If you’d like to have a conversation about a Union event, I’d recommend talking to the relevant officer or the event’s organisers instead of commenting anonymously online.

    • The Saint’s criticism was deserved. The email from the student’s association was patronising and just plain stupid. You think the police are going to invest enormous resources and trace student IP’s because of admitting to low level drugs possession (sometime in the undefined past)? That’s some CSI-level b.s. Maybe tell your Sabbs to concentrate on something useful instead of frightening the students who don’t know any better than to ignore it.

  3. Perhaps the editors of the saint would be willing to explain what they collect IP addresses for? It’s certainly not required for the proper functioning of a website to store them.

    • That is an inaccurate statement. Any exchange of information on any website will log the IP address that made contact with the website’s servers as a basic technical necessity. The IP address is where the data is sent by the web server in order for the page to load at all. The ‘collection’ that you refer to is merely the practice of storing a user’s front-end data (in primitive terms, essentially what is on the ‘outside of the envelope’ To X, from Y, and even the ‘from Y’ is a lot more anonymous than that) through cookies which is necessary for any website that runs off ad revenue (see: all of them) to function. To imply that this is somehow a unique or unusual practice is ridiculous.

      • I am sure Gareth is well aware of how the IP protocol works, being a fourth year computer scientist. I think the question he was trying to raise was why they are being stored after the page requests had finished executing. That, I assure you, is NOT necessary for the proper functioning of a website.

  4. I’m sure there’s a legitimate reason for collecting IP addresses (but it would be nice to know what they’re stored for). Then again, people who don’t realise that entering a poll might log your IP address shouldn’t be allowed near the internet.

  5. Whether Chloe is trying to falsify the statistics or not, I can already see the headline: (Insert high percentage) of students take illegal drugs. The thing is, the vast majority will just be smoking weed and everyone should know by now that it’s safer than alcohol. It’s very unlikely that there will be a significant number of people admitting to doing cocaine or other dangerous drugs.

  6. Have you ever operated a production website? I’d be shocked if the saint revealed that they weren’t logging page requests. Apache does it by default and pretty much every host out there will do it too. Justifications that spring to mind are analytics, debugging and ddos mitigation. What are you even defining as “proper functioning of a website”? I can think of a lot of things that aren’t required to serve up a HTTP request – that doesn’t mean we don’t use them.

    If you use the Internet you should expect your IP address to be logged by every single node. If you don’t bother hiding your IP address then that’s your own problem.

  7. Chloe Hill brought up a pertinent point that is very relevant regarding research ethics in the study of illegal behaviour and activities – how to keep individuals who participated in the research from harm as a result of taking part in said research. This is a huge ethical issue in social science research, and it was irresponsible of the Saint to not take this into consideration. Frankly, this survey should have been required to submit an application to the University Teaching and Research Ethics Committee (UTREC) before being run. The Saint needs to be reported for such a considerable violation of research ethics.

    • Eh? The Saint is independent of the university, why would it possibly be required to follow a separate institution’s protocols….

      • UTREC has since clarified that it can take no action for precisely this reason. My concern, in addition to the important research ethics consideration, was that the Saint does represent the University by association, as it is run by university students. Its ‘independent’ actions could harm the University’s prestigious reputation for research if the Saints’ actions are reported on a national scale, where the distinction of its independence could be lost.

  8. Dear Saint,

    There are a few questions you should answer:
    1) You are using HostGator as your hosting provider. Can you ensure that the IP logs and the response data will not be used or passed by them?
    2) For the survey, you are using HTTP, not the secure and encrypted HTTPS. Everybody with a laptop on the same network are able to view your responses without too much hassle (see “packet sniffing”). Isn’t this information a bit too private to be treated so recklessly?

    It great that you are doing surveys and research on important issues, just put some effort into making it acceptably secure.

    Love,
    Friend

    • It’s pretty disgraceful that The Saint doesn’t even support HTTPS. I don’t want my browsing history to be broadcast to everyone in the library.

    • You brought up some important points from a research ethics’ standpoint. The Saint should have made it completely clear on its survey page what (if any) steps were to be taken to protect participants’ confidentiality and how such data would be stored. I mentioned earlier about UTREC (the university’s research ethics committee); if the Saint had gone through the ethics application process before releasing the survey, such important points would have be brought up.

  9. The survey in itself is pretty much worthless though, as long as the headline does not read: “100 readers of The Saint Online admits using drugs”. I simply do not see how it is possible to draw meaningful conclusions about drug use in St Andrews from an online survey who anyone with an internet connection can answer. There is no way for The Saint to control if the respondents are students in St Andrews, or stop people answering the survey multiple times. Furthermore, even if you ignore these problems the group you are polling are the readers of The Saint online, not a stratified sample of the student population of St Andrews.

      • Damn, I thought you were going to link to a website that demonstrated how an informal student newspaper survey could be taken so seriously that it damaged an entire university’s international prestige. Oh well.

        • Actually, it is an issue. Locally it may be known that the Saint is independent of the university, but that distinction can easily be lost. Especially because it is run by students of the university and therefore does have an affiliation with the university. Particularly as I chose to come to this university for its world-class research.
          And any online survey on such a serious and important topic such as drug use is never informal, particularly through a medium of a newspaper website, which lends it legitimacy.

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