Photo Via Flickr User wonderferret

Shiru Cafe aims to help students find jobs after graduation, but ethical questions remain.

Tim Nelson
Updated: October 05, 2018

College students are semi-formed people largely powered by alcohol and caffeine. Surviving an all-nighter—or just showing up to a morning class—is unthinkable without a cup of coffee or three to keep grogginess at bay. But do undergrads love coffee enough to fork over access to their personal data in order to get it?

That’s the core concept behind Shiru Cafe, a Japanese-owned coffee chain whose first US location is just steps from Brown University’s campus in Providence, Rhode Island. The cafe only caters to students and faculty, turning away patrons who can’t present a Brown ID. The coffee costs $0.00 for students, but there’s a catch: In exchange, they must fill out an online form that tells Shiru their name, phone number, email, concentration (Brown’s term for a major), and professional interests.

Companies then pay Shiru to reach its audience, leveraging that information to hit students with ads both online and off, including in-person sales pitches from baristas while they wait for their orders. “We have specially trained staff members who give students additional information about our sponsors while they enjoy their coffee,” Shiru’s website says.

The idea of a coffee shop acting as a middleman between consumers and corporations sounds like it was lifted straight from an episode of Black Mirror. But Shiru isn’t out to just sell student data to the highest bidder. "They're very good about keeping everyone's information close,” Sarah Ferris, the assistant manager of Shiru’s providence cafe told NPR. “They don't sell it, they don't do anything of that sort." Instead, Shiru says it gives out aggregate, rather than individualized and identifiable, student data.

Instead, Shiru sees itself as a facilitator of professional opportunities, connecting Ivy League students with career advice and potential employers as they prepare to enter the workforce. Since opening its first establishment five years ago in Kyoto, Shiru has aimed to be “a place where students can learn about a professional world and envision their future career,” using the cafe’s historic role as a meeting space to forge relationships that are more valuable than the average LinkedIn connection.

There’s ample reason to approach Shiru with caution, however. Jacob Furst, a computer security professor at DePaul University, told New York Magazine that connecting through Shiru’s wi-fi network could potentially grant corporate partners access to some pretty revealing data that students didn’t sign up to share. That students also can’t control who their data is shared with could also potentially connect them with some unsavory corporate partners they’d rather avoid.

Certainly, some students find the combination of the cafe’s business model and atmosphere, where decor includes tacky motivational posters, a bit unnerving. “It has this pretense of doing good for students and the world at large and being an optimistic, empowering environment,” Brown comparative lit student Signe Swanson told New York, “but it’s really kind of freaky.”

Still, there’s no doubt that many students will continue to exchange the kind of info that you could find after a few Google or LinkedIn searches for free coffee. As long as they live in a world where student loan debt mandates they find a decent job after graduation, expect the free coffee and personal information to flow—no matter what its other costs might be.

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