UC Memo Recommends Strengthening Student Email Privacy Policy

A group of Undergraduate Council members drafted a memorandum on Harvard’s undergraduate email privacy policy that clarifies the policy, identifies potential ambiguity, and makes recommendations for changes.

In the memo, the authors directly quote the Student Handbook which states that “systems administrators...may gain access to users’ data...when it is necessary to maintain or prevent damage to systems or to ensure compliance with other University rules.”

However, UC representatives wrote in the memo that, in general, students are unaware of this policy and that many of those who are aware of the policy find it confusing.

In particular, the memo points to the phrase “compliance with other University rules” as a vague clause open to many different interpretations.

The memo, which was presented to the Committee on Student Life last week, recommends strengthening the current privacy policy in four areas.

First, the representatives called for the policy to be more specific as to which “rules” can trigger email searches, along with who can recommend a search and the procedures by which students are notified.

The authors also called for the policy to be included in the First Year Guide and presented on a frequented web page like my.harvard.edu. Third, citing the recent decision by Brown University to release information on email searches, the memo calls for the College to divulge the number of times student emails have been searched and for what purpose.

The memo ended with a request that students be allowed to “formally review the policy” and assist in drafting any new policies.

Florence Y. Chen ’15, the primary author of the memo, said these changes would make people “more comfortable and...more understanding of the administration’s policies.”

The memo was commissioned by the UC in late March following the discovery that Harvard administrators had accessed the email accounts of resident deans.

The memo took on an added significance a few days after it was commissioned when administrators admitted to a second email search that was more invasive than previously revealed and that broke the Faculty of Arts and Sciences email privacy policy. Both incidents were mentioned in the memo.

According to an email from UC President Tara Raghuveer ’14, the public release of the memo—which was expected a couple of weeks ago—was delayed due to last week’s bombings at the Boston Marathon and the subsequent manhunt for the suspects.

The UC intends to officially release the memo to the general student body in the coming days and to present it to the newly created faculty task force charged with drafting a new University-wide email privacy policy.

“We don’t need every single policy recommendation to be check-listed,” Chen said. “We just want students to have more clarification; we just want students to be able to have a voice.”

—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can be reached at stevenlee@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.

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