University e-mail review policy concerns students

Webmail security features allowing University officials to copy and read all e-mails on the server are causing a debate about student and faculty privacy.

E-mails on the server are backed up by the University system, said Ron Bonig, executive director of Operations for Information Systems and Services. He said this is so student and faculty e-mails can be retrieved if the server fails.

However, as stated in the code of usage, the University has the authority to review its copies of student and faculty e-mail under certain circumstances, University officials said.

“I’m OK with the system,” sophomore Dan Strouse said. “If there is something seriously wrong, and they could find out about it through my e-mail, then they should be able to do so.”

Many students, however, said they feel their right to privacy is being violated, despite the fact that the administration defends the legality of the system.

“People have a certain expectation of privacy, especially if they are sending a personal e-mail to a boyfriend or girlfriend, for example. It’s just like sending a letter through the mail. You don’t expect the letter carrier to read it,” said senior Robin Metalitz, president of the GW chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The issue has also received attention from members of the Progressive Student Union and GW Action Coalition.

“This gives too much information to people in a higher authority at GW,” said activist Brian Dolber, a senior. “As a political activist on campus, I find it perthe final decision will involve people from the general counsel office.”

The University code of conduct for computer use reads, “University computing systems and services may be used for personal purposes provided that such use does not … violate other University regulations or law.”

It further states computer activity may be monitored and the “contents of user files may also be inspected” in “instances when individuals are suspected of abuse.”

Administrators said GW reserves this privilege for student e-mails for cases in which students are accused of criminal activity. Schutjer estimated officials have to retrieve e-mails four times per year.

“An example of a time when this has happened was threats being made to the president of the United States through one of our accounts,” Schutjer said. “The Secret Service came to us and asked if they could look in the student’s account.”

Former GW graduate student Khushal Khan was arrested and held by the INS for sending an e-mail threatening to kill President George W. Bush, according to a September Hatchet article.

The Washington Post recently reported that Khan was deported last month.

According to administrators, faculty members are subject to a broader definition of criminal activity, including subpoenas in lawsuits or internal investigations such as harassment charges.

“There is always a trade-off between utility and security and until this point we have seen utility,” said computer science professor Lance Hoffman.

Hoffman said current computer networks are unsafe and likened it to early automobiles.

“It is a bit like driving cars in the 1920s before there were seatbelts,” Hoffman said. “We have been using computer systems that are essentially like cars without seatbelts.”

The Webmail issue connects closely with other privacy concerns at the University level and in society in general.

“It’s a good safeguard that we have this type of backup system, and I don’t think it’s an infringement on our privacy,” freshman Virginia Castro said. “It’s no different than GW having our Social Security numbers. They already have access to all of our personal information.”

“There is no right to privacy on the Internet,” Schutjer said. “Always assume that any piece of chatter that is posted is public.”

However, students said it is the University’s obligation to make them more aware of how, and in what circumstances, their e-mail could be reviewed and potentially used against them.

“There is a great concern about the lack of education on this issue,” Metalitz said. “In the legal sense, it’s kind of tricky, because it’s owned by the University, but the school doesn’t tell us what types of e-mail are suspicious, and they really should.”

-Alex Kingsbury contributed to this report.

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