Harvard's Employee Email Search Highlights Need for Clarity of Policies

Harvard's Employee Email Search Highlights Need for Clarity of Policies

March 14, 2013

In trying to determine who leaked news of a cheating scandal at Harvard University, officials secretly checked the email accounts of 16 resident deans. The university confirmed "elements" of the search, and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael Smith, said that "Harvard College would take all necessary and appropriate actions under our procedures to safeguard the integrity of that process, which is designed to protect the rights of our students to privacy and due process." Harvard said that officials only looked at the subject line of emails to find a specific message that had been shared with the student newspaper. The dean who sent the email was not punished because the leak was inadvertent.

The searches surprised and concerned some at Harvard. IT experts in higher education say that Harvard's actions were troubling and their policies should be re-evaluated. "I think in an environment like a university, which is founded on the principles of open exchange and communication, the notion of covert surveillance is unnerving to people that live in that environment," said Michael Corn, the chief privacy and security officer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Corn said, at Illinois, a department head and dean come to him with a written request to look at an employee's email. After he approves it, Corn adheres to university procedure and informs the employee first. Although Harvard has a similar policy to give an employee notice before looking at his or her emails, the university said it was operating "without any clear precedent for privacy concerns."

From a legal standpoint, employees usually do not have a right to privacy when using their employers' computers or email services. However, the criticism at Harvard is about privacy policies, rather than privacy laws. Harvard™s employee policy states that the university has "ownership over, and the right to obtain access to, the systems and contents" of its employees. The broad policy states that "electronic files, e-mail, data files, images, software, and voice mail may be accessed at any time by management or by other authorized personnel for any business purpose." The policy also states that, for faculty, each person whose e-mail is to be searched must receive prior notification of the plan. Overall, experts say that if a university gives its employees reason to expect more privacy, then the university should honor that expectation.

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