October 6, 2000

S.A. Discusses E-Mail Privacy Protection

Print More

In response to complaints from anonymous individuals about the University “snooping” into their private e-mail, the Student Assembly (S.A.) passed a resolution concerning students’ rights to “privacy of electronic data and communication” at yesterday’s meeting.

According to Leslie Barkemeyer ’03, LGBTQ liaison at-large, there is good reason to think “the University does not randomly search e-mail. Considering the enormous amounts of material that pass through the server each day, this would be too big of a task for [Cornell Information Technologies (CIT)] to be concerned with.”

Yet, in the event of an anticipated crisis, there is a legitimate reason to believe that such mail previewing may happen as a common matter of course.

Ithaca Common Council Representative Josh Glasstetter ’01 cited one such incident when a dummy with a head made of cantaloupe was recently thrown over the gorge as a prank. CIT aided the investigation by running a word search for cantaloupe throughout the Cornell e-mail system and pulled up any message with the word “cantaloupe” in it.

On a similar note, Dave Unger ’02, president of Students Against Sweatshops and member of Cornell Organization for Labor Action, commented on his experiences.

“There are definitely administrators on the listservs,” Unger said.

According to Unger, this awareness has directly impacted how both organizations are currently conducted.

“At this point, we deal with this issue as a matter of fact and operate under the assumption that everything we write has the potential to be read by the people we are going against,” Unger added.

While a sentence about students’ rights regarding electronic privacy currently exists in some University documents, the wording is vague and there is no codified policy.

Explaining the rationale behind the resolution, David Mahon ’01, student-elected trustee, said, “We found it disturbing that this information was virtually unpublished.”

“The purpose of this resolution is to try to get the University to standardize and codify their policy and also to expand privacy rights for students,” said Adam Crouch ’03, president of Cornell Civil Liberties Union.

“We are simply asking the University to abide by the same rules that other Internet and telephone companies already follow,” Crouch added.

“Many of Cornell’s peer institutions have already adopted similar resolutions regarding students’ rights to electronic privacy,” Mahon observed.

In support of the resolution, the S.A. cited the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which establishes the right of people to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Under the resolution, the S.A. recommends that the University retain its authority to open student mail in relation to emergencies and major crime threats — as long as a court of law grants the University permission.

As an added provision, the resolution recommended “a ban on the storage of data of an individual past a period of 30 days,” unless the University has proper legal authorization and/or the consent of all stakeholders involved.

Though the resolution passed, S.A. members were divided in their responses to this particular provision.

Architecture, Art & Planning Representative Michael Wacht ’02, voiced concerns about “inconveniences that [the 30-day policy] could place on students relying on web e-mail and Traveler’s Mail.”

Crouch defended the provision by suggesting that the 30-day policy was included as a further means of protection “so that the University cannot track an individual for extended period of time.”

Further questions about the privacy issue will be considered by the administration in the future as the S.A. remains in close communication with CIT and President Hunter Rawlings to help put the resolution into effect.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts