Saturday, January 24, 2009

Big Brother and U, Part I: Is Your University Reading your Email?

For many years, I have fought restrictions on academic freedom. As President of the Illinois Association of Scholars, an affiliate of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), I deal with these issues across the state. As a historian I am researching the past record of civil liberties on college campuses.

In a word, I have lost my capacity to be shocked at what some will do to others within the Ivory Tower of higher education.

While the issues remain the same, the techniques used to restrict academic liberty change. It might be a new area of law (sexual harassment codes) or a new technology (should college libraries censor Internet content)?

This column deals with a new reality that shocks people when they find out that their university may be reading their email, watching their screen activity, or even punishing students, staff or faculty for what they write on Facebook.

Most people are shocked when they learn how vulnerable they are to electronic surveillance. Consider this a primer on learning the tactics of surveillance and how to avoid becoming a victim of it.

General advice: Assume that Big Brother is reading or watching everything you write on a campus computer or email account. Using a non-academic email account is wise (see next post) but does not provide 100% protection.

Case Studies:: here are some real examples of the problem:

*Campus email ends up as evidence in a recent lawsuit involving tenure and promotion. The email was up to TEN YEARS OLD. My campus, probably typical, archives all administrator email. The university policy toward non-administrator email is unknown (as IAS president, I will be sending out a questionnaire to all state universities asking this question, among others).

*Facebook censorship:: A student at Valdosta State criticized new student fees for the building of a parking garage on campus. He used his Facebook page to create a satirical collage criticizing the university administration's move to impose fees to build this garage. Result: The administration cited the Facebook page as evidence that the dissident student was a "clear and present danger" and banished him from campus. FIRE brought a lawsuit and immense publicity to bear on the university (including Youtube video, legislative lobbying, and a full-page ad in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings issue). The university finally admitted it was wrong, hired a new president, and apologized to the student.

*Michigan State retaliated against an undergraduate student leader for distributing a questionnaire via email to faculty asking for their responses to a new school calendar. The university had encouraged constituency input but did not like the student's criticism of the proposed calendar. By invoking the obscure campus networking policy, the university punished her for "spamming!" Her "crime" was distributing email to individuals without first asking their permission! If that is a crime, we are all guilty. Together with other groups, FIRE has taken her case. You can't make this stuff up.

*Rumors are flying on one Illinois campus that the general counsel is trying to track down "whistleblowers" who divulged information resulting in lawsuits that the university lost or settled. Institutions hate to be embarrassed and will (or might) take steps to spy on a P.I.T.A. (Pain in the Ass). Whether the rumors are founded or not, an ounce of knowledge is helpful to prevent "The Man" (or "The Woman") from coming down on you for electronic speech.

A cautionary word to college snoops: be careful becausee FIRE is not the only civil liberties group defending people from e-censorship; my friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation are also diligent.

In cases like this, knowledge is power. Know what to do (or not do), and who to call if you need help against Big Brother.

The second part of this primer on electronic surveillance will educate readers as to how universities may read email and "log" (transmit) all of your keystrokes to their administrative office for review.

(To be continued)

1 comment:

Nicolas Martin said...

American universities are the most faithful remaining bastion of Stalinism. Read more here:

In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage