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Economics Doctoral Students Received Confidential Information About Admitted Peers

The Littauer Center houses Harvard's Economics Department.
The Littauer Center houses Harvard's Economics Department.
By Joshua J. Florence and Mia C. Karr, Crimson Staff Writers

A spreadsheet containing personal information and confidential evaluation data about admitted Economics doctoral students was mistakenly sent to current graduate students last week.

In a letter Economics Department Chair David I. Laibson sent to affected students, Laibson wrote that the spreadsheet was intended to provide contact information for the new students. But the spreadsheet also included “hidden columns” with confidential comments from the admissions committee about each student, as well as their nationalities, genders, and names of Harvard faculty they would be interested in working with, according to the letter obtained by The Crimson.

In an interview, Laibson said the evaluation data consisted of only short “telegraphic comments.”

“Those cells reflected not a complete process on the part of the admissions committee but a partial process,” he said. “It’s impossible to look at those cells and infer the committee's deliberation.”

In his letter, Laibson informed accepted students that he had requested recipients of the spreadsheet to “permanently delete” the file.

Laibson said the department has taken two steps to prevent future mistakes. First, the individual who sent the file is now required to have any emails they send over the list receive reviewed by the department’s leadership.

“The second precaution that we’re taking is a wholesale review and revision of our email usage system and that includes taking a look at all of our listservs, determining who has access to those listservs, likely tightening usage of those listservs, likely tightening the permissions that we have for what types of documents can be sent to those listservs,” Laibson said.

Laibson says he expects to roll out a new listserv policy within a week.

This is not the first time this year that a technical error has led to the inadvertent availability of confidential information. In February, the Harvard Computer Society made private thousands of email lists after The Crimson informed the organization that more than 1.4 million emails—some containing confidential or sensitive information—sent over HCS-hosted lists were open to the public.

In the letter to admitted students, Laibson encouraged students to contact him with questions about the incident.

“On behalf of the department, I apologize for the serious mistake and the concern it will cause you,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

–Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.

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