The administrative glasnost was not intentional, however, caused instead by a computer virus that swept across the Internet in early June and infected a number of University Hall machines.
When the Bugbear.b virus, which hit campus June 6, infects a machine, it sends messages to recipients on an individuals’ address book and past message history. In addition to a virus-laden attachment, such e-mails often contain text fragments from files on that machine, which may include documents and private correspondence.
Harvard students reported receiving a variety of seemingly misaddressed, unusual messages, mostly bearing harmless communications about scheduling.
But at least one message, sent from an infected machine on the second floor of University Hall and received by at least three Harvard undergraduates, contained a confidential memo from Secretary of the Faculty John B. Fox to Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby.
In the letter, Fox advises Kirby on how to correspond with the father of Michael D. Wang, originally a member of the Class of 2005 who faced disciplinary action by the College following a series of thefts last spring.
“I gather that today he has sent you an intemperate message, so perhaps there is no need to correspond with the father further,” Fox wrote.
The letter continued to suggest that Kirby, a China scholar, might want to write to Wang’s father, a “brief handwritten note in Chinese.”
“Dr. Wang has clearly not fully absorbed American customs as yet,” Fox wrote, “so a message in his own idiom might reassure.”
Fox said he was aware of the leaked memo, but that he had not realized undergraduates had received it. He first heard about the accidental transmission from an individual outside Harvard.
“I have not known any of the recipients I had heard from,” he said.
Fox said he was concerned about the privacy issues, but that the e-mail had not leaked from his Macintosh computer, as Bugbear only affects Windows PCs.
“There’s an enormous amount of concern,” Fox said. “As I say this errant e-mail did not come from me…This is another machine, that picked up an e-mail of mine and forwarded it.”
Fox declined to comment on the content of the memo to Kirby, and said he hoped all students who received it would destroy the e-mail.
“I will have absolutely no comment on the content of that e-mail, and I will repeat to you that any recipient of that e-mail should destroy it immediately,” he said. “I would think that students at Harvard would adhere to the same guidelines [for educational privacy]...This is protection of student records; this is in their interest.”
Educational privacy law can penalize institutions who negligently or intentionally transmit their students’ records.