Isis E-mail Archive Held Private Thoughts, Not News

To the editors:

I am the president of the Harvard Computer Society, but it is as a student like any other that I write these remarks. What happened regarding the e-mail archives of the mailing list for Isis (“E-mails Offer Glimpse of Club,” news, Oct. 24) is a technologist’s greatest fear. I’m not speaking of the fact that the archives were made publicly available—that there are leaks of private data isn’t a fear, it’s a certainty. What keeps me up at night is the way in which the community at large reacted to and abused that data.

Isis, it’s true, made an error in inadequately protecting its archives, but it made an error no larger or more worthy of derision than errors we all make every day. We reply to all the recipients of an e-mail when we ought only reply to some, we accidentally reply to e-mails on which we were bcc’d, and even before there was e-mail we spoke about people behind their backs in places where their friends could have accidentally overheard.

It’s always unfortunate when private data is released and confidences are broken. We rely, however, on the common decency of those around us to control the damage. This campus saw a failure of that decency on an astounding scale. So many people are to blame: those who spread the archives around even though they were obviously intended to be private, the reporting staff of The Crimson for bringing personal gossip into a public forum with insufficient regard to the feelings of its objects, and everyone else, myself included, who pointed a finger at Isis for making an honest mistake while failing to point one at those who were making a decidedly malicious error in judgment.

In his column (“The Isis Exposes Itself,” Oct 24.), Travis Kavulla hit the nail squarely on the head. Nothing The Crimson revealed about Isis was, so far as I can tell, particularly shocking. It certainly did little to add to the discourse on campus about final clubs; it’s hard to imagine proponents of those organizations making use of it, and those who would fight them already assumed they possessed whatever bad qualities can be inferred from these e-mails. In fact, most of the qualities that seem to make the content interesting (cattiness, the impact of wealth, and so on) are qualities that would probably be revealed if the election dialogue from any major organization on campus—final club, Crimson, Undergraduate Council (UC), or what have you—was made publicly available.

But this situation is different from the UC elections in another very important regard: it’s none of our collective business. If an e-mail revealing that a UC candidate with a great deal of potential were behaving unethically made its way accidentally into the hands of a reporter, there would be a legitimate dilemma for those interested in journalistic integrity, and that reporter might well decide it’s in the interest of the electorate to be informed about their potential representatives. Isis is not the UC, however. It’s a social club, and its activities are, so far as I’m aware, organized exclusively for its members.

We should be ashamed of ourselves for taking so much interest in their affairs in this way. No fewer than four articles (including a staff editorial, not to mention two e-mail transcripts) were published surrounding the incident—more in one day than about any other single topic this school year. If there needs to be a discussion on campus about the role that single-gender unofficial organizations play in our social scene, let’s have it, but let’s have it openly, rather than by making what amounts to a series of poorly concealed personal attacks that capitalize on an unfortunate and understandable mistake.


October 24, 2005