May 2, 2003

Students Question Their Net Privacy

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Cornell University provides its students with a high speed internet access (for a modest fee of $160 dollars). But as students enter the internet using this broadband service, they put themselves and all their computer files in plain view of Uncle Ezra.

In recent years, as the internet connection became faster, more and more people turned to peer to peer music sharing networks such as Kazaa for free access to copyrighted music and video files. Record companies and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), rebelled by seeking legal action against such activity.

In February, legal precedent was set. In a ruling by Federal District Court Judge John D. Bates, Internet Service providers were forced to disclose information to RIAA and record companies about subscribers who download and share copyrighted material. This decision gave record companies the authority to scan the files that individuals send over the internet, in search for copyrighted material.

As a result, college campuses, where there is a concentration of high-bandwidth networks and young people, were targeted for searches. Cornell student, Justin Berkowitz ’05, wrote an opinion piece on the Cornell Freedom Project Website, expressing his concern over this piracy of privacy of Cornell students, invoking the metaphor of Cornell as “Big Brother.”

“I know there have been a number of students have been JAed for sharing files,” Berkowtiz said. “The university and more so the federal courts, were affirming decisions that were inappropriate, and violated people’s rights,” he added.

“It’s the problem with violation of privacy, a lot of the time you don’t even know they’re doing it,” Berkowtiz said. In his column, Berkowtiz raised the question whether Cornell is playing big brother when it comes to the privacy of its students.

“They are playing big brother,” said Natalie Newman ’04, “the government should be able to do it, but not through institutions that have nothing to do with it like Cornell.”

Janet Lin ’04 also expressed her opinion about the issue. “On one hand, what we do it illegal, but what they do would be a violation too.” Although concerned about her right, she looked at the situation from the side of the university, “I suppose they should try to protect the privacy…but being an organization if you think about it, it’s a really tough position to be in.”

The Univesrity’s official position on scanning the computers of Cornell Students for illegal files was states by Tracy Mitrano, the director of computer law and policy in the Computing and Communication center. “Cornell does not now, nor never has, monitored its network for content, including music or movie files, as a practice,” Mitrano said.

“Copyright holders can use file sharing systems like everyone else, and that is how they find IP addresses that distribute the material they alledge to own. Cornell receives a notice from them with an IP address on it that they gathered using Kazaa or any other file share program. We translate for user name and send notice to user,” she said.

Mitrano emphasized that even when caught with the violation, “Cornell assiduously protects the identity of its users from copyright holders.” One of the ways this is done, is by blocking the IP immediately after a student is caught violating the copyright law.

Although concerned with the violation of privacy of the students, Berkowitz, conceded, that “Cornell, as a school doesn’t have very much they can do, the court decision I was particularly upset with it was one that it forced third party internet providers to reveal to record companies, user information, in that case it was Verizon, in this case its Cornell that provides the internet, Resnet.”

This longstanding issue has been debated in court recently. “Someone already tried to stand up to the record companies and they lost, so if Cornell tried to go to court, they would probably lose as well,” Berkowitz said, “it’s a shame that this is the way things are.”

However, some students felt that Cornell should do a better job of protecting their privacy. “Cornell should stand up for the privacy of its students for the simple fact that we are paying Cornell $35,000/year to attend their university,” Fannie W. Cyriaque ’03 said. “The least they can do is assist us in protecting our privacy,” she added.

If a student is caught red handed, the university takes judicial action against them.

“Discipline is up to the J.A., whom I believe charges a 30$ fine for first time offenders. In consultation with counsel’s office they have decided that if sometime gets three consecutive notices, they will have account closed for the semester,” Mitrano said.

Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant receives notices of violations and takes action. “Educational sanctions for Code violations may include a combination of warnings, written reprimands, fines, community work, reflection papers, and, for repeat offenders, loss of access to the internet. Disciplinary records may also be maintained,” she said.

Students living off campus can also be affected if they use the Cornell network.

Although Cornell, may not be able to legally protect its students against computer scanning, “students can, any one can down download software, the one I would recommend PGP, or pretty good privacy,” Berkowitz said. This software can be downloaded for free and can be sued to stop the record company or Cornell, to scan the stuff. “It encrypts the files you send and receive and affords students the protection they deserve,” Berkowitz said.

Archived article by Veronika Belenkaya