Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Harvard Controversy: Can Your Administration Search Your Email Inbox?

If you read your institution’s rules and regs, you undoubtedly will find that it can, as a matter of law. But we may be concerned not about law but about generally accepted understandings and expectations. From Wired Campus, here is an analysis (excerpts):

The revelation that Harvard University secretly looked at the e-mail inboxes of 16 resident deans in the wake of last year’s cheating scandal has led to outrage among some of its professors, with prominent faculty members taking to the Internet to vent their frustrations.

From a strictly legal standpoint, employees generally do not have a right to privacy when using their employers’ computers or e-mail services, legal experts say. Individual policies may offer some protections, but there is nothing illegal about an employer’s reading e-mail messages sent through its own systems or networks.

In a statement released on Monday, Harvard explained that the searches consisted only of looking at e-mail messages’ subject lines and that the inquiry was limited to the resident deans’ administrative e-mail accounts, which are separate from their general Harvard e-mail accounts and are intended only for Harvard business.

The distinctions between employees and faculty members, between subject lines and message contents, and between private and public universities make e-mail privacy a confusing aspect of professorial policies, said Robert M. O’Neil, founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and a former president of the University of Virginia.

Without any kind of general policy across the board, it all comes down to individual expectations, he said. If a university gives its employees reason to expect more privacy, then that university should usually honor that expectation.

“At the same time, the guidance that we have from various courts seems to suggest that an employer does have some degree of access to an employee’s routine communications,” Mr. O’Neil said. “It’s still very much in flux and is a highly confusing field.”

 “All of that arises in the uniquely public context, and Harvard is about as private as you can get,” Mr. O’Neil said. “So I think it’s a dramatic difference and a critical distinction.”


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