Email Search Fallout Prompts Dismay Over Privacy, Trust

UPDATED: April 4, 2013, at 10:58 a.m.

In response to revelations of a previously undisclosed round of secret email searches announced at a faculty meeting Tuesday, student representatives expressed concern about administrative transparency surrounding email privacy, including the security of the students’ own accounts.

Administrators have admitted to secretly searching the emails of 16 resident deans and of “rarely” accessing faculty email. Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in a statement early Thursday morning that “It is extremely rare—and rightly so—for any aspect of a student’s email account to be examined.”

Undergraduate Council President Tara Raghuveer ’14 said Wednesday that the news of the second search prompted questions.

“I think this just furthers the question that we’ve already been asking about the privacy of student emails and what student rights are in regards to emails,” Raghuveer said. “It’s a question that is incredibly important.”

On March 11, in response to reports that they had secretly searched resident deans’ accounts, Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds and FAS Dean Michael D. Smith released a statement saying that the email searches had been limited to the resident deans’ administrative accounts and had included only subject-line queries. On Tuesday, Hammonds and Smith told faculty that neither of those things were true.

In fact, they said, after their first email search yielded the identity of the resident dean who leaked an Administrative Board communication that made its way to the media, Hammonds authorized a search of that resident dean’s faculty account. Conducted without Smith’s knowledge—a violation of the faculty email privacy policy—the second set of searches also used Crimson reporters’ names as search terms.

“I and others, entrusted with administering our university business, made serious mistakes, and I stand here to apologize and to join in the commitment to learn lessons for the future,” Hammonds said, according to her prepared remarks. “These mistakes included missteps in communication.”

UC representative Meghamsh Kanuparthy ’16, who was present at the faculty meeting, suggested that the news of the searches and the subsequent contradiction in Smith and Hammonds’ statement cast doubt on administrators’ credibility.

“I think we’re at a point where we need work to—as the faculty repeated many, many times over—repair the trust that is incumbent on any organization if it wants to be productive,” said Kanuparthy.

Still, he said that the statements that top administrators made at the meeting constituted a first step toward regaining the trust of the Harvard community.

“The entire administration made very sincere, very heartfelt apologies at that meeting, and I’m thankful to them for that,” Kanuparthy said.

Although representatives were positive about what they heard at the meeting, they said that it was important that administrators begin to also address and clarify policy on searches of student email accounts.

According to the student handbook, administrators may access student accounts in some cases, but it does not say whether the owners of those accounts must be notified of a search.

“What we hope to get from the administration is: what are the circumstances in which you will be searching our accounts,” said UC Vice President Jen Q. Zhu ’14.

The UC intends to come out with a policy memorandum in the coming days outlining the current University policy for student email accounts while also making recommendations to the administration about ways to clarify and better its policy.

Other Ivy League institutions, such as Columbia, Princeton, and Brown, contain language similar to Harvard’s handbook about administrators’ right to access student emails in some circumstances. In the wake of the news about the email searches at Harvard, Brown’s Chief Information Security Officer David Sherry told The Brown Daily Herald that in the past five years, the administration has searched student email accounts three times, but only to account for students who were missing or had not returned from spring break.

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

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

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