Students Uncertain of Privacy Policy, Some Fear Searches

In the wake of Saturday’s report that administrators secretly searched resident deans’ email accounts, it remains unclear whether University policy permits Harvard officials to conduct covert searches of student email accounts.

According to the College’s student handbook, administrators may access student email accounts in order to safeguard the system or “to ensure compliance with other University rules.” The policy does not directly address whether account owners must be notified if their emails are searched.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal said in a statement that “Any assertion that Harvard routinely monitors emails—for any reason—is patently false.” He did not return a request for comment on whether the University has ever searched student email accounts, and if so, whether students must be informed of the search.

Without clear answers, the Undergraduate Council is preparing a memo that is designed to inform students about their email privacy rights and express concern to administrators about the student handbook’s ambiguities regarding the permissibility of secret searches.

In a draft of the memo, UC President Tara Raghuveer ’14 and UC Representative Florence Y. Chen ’15 expressed concern about the language of the handbook policy, calling the potential need “to ensure compliance with other University rules” a “vague concept.”

“This clause could potentially be stretched to allow searches under many conditions,” the draft states. “We should ask more questions about this, especially regarding whether or not students would or should receive notification about a search before the search begins.”

Raguveer said that since the news of the secret email searches broke on Saturday, she has heard from students expressing fear that their own Harvard email accounts may also be subject to monitoring.

“It’s a little frightening knowing that our emails could be checked,” Casey A. Alcantar ’13 said.

Alexander H. Martin, a student at Harvard Business School and at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said he “share[s] the sentiment of some of the faculty” who have criticized the administration for the incident.

“It’s pretty suspect that [Harvard] would go through emails unannounced,” Martin said. “If they were to seek consent, then it’s fine.”

Some students begrudgingly acknowledged the fact that administrative access may be part of having a Harvard account.

“It’s a thing you always know using Harvard servers,” Martha R. Farlow ’13 said. “It’s a fact of using the Internet. It doesn’t mean I like it.”

Melissa J. Sieffert ’14 said she uses discretion when deciding whether or not to use her @college email account.

“I do not have any sketchy business over my Harvard email account,” Sieffert said. “[For] anything that’s personal, I use my own email.”

Ambiguities also remain about whether Harvard officials were breaking University rules when they covertly searched resident deans’ email accounts. Resident deans enjoy some faculty privileges, but it is unclear whether faculty or staff privacy rules apply to their email accounts.

The FAS email privacy policy requires administrators to notify faculty when searching their accounts, while the staff policy states that non-faculty emails “may be accessed at any time by management or by other authorized personnel for any business purpose” without notification.

—Staff writer Laya Anasu can be reached at layaanasu@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @layaanasu.

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached syweinstock@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @syweinstock.

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