Columns

Eppler ’13: Reform Brown’s email privacy policy

By
Guest Columnist
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The University’s “Emergency Access to Accounts and Information” policy grants University administrators and law enforcement officers unfettered access to seemingly private information stored in student, faculty and staff email, calendar and document accounts, and does so with an alarming lack of transparency.

Although public information on this privilege is limited to a Herald article from last semester (“University officials read Brown e-mails,” Feb. 25), a vague description on the CIS website and a few sentences buried in a July email to the student body, here is how we believe the policy operates. A department head may send an access request to the chief of public safety, the directors of Health Services or Psychological Services, the vice president for campus life and student services, the assistant vice president of human resources, the provost or the vice president of administration. One of those administrators then has complete discretion to order CIS to grant access to data. That is all.

The policy includes no guidelines for use of this privilege against students, no requirement that students be notified when their data has been accessed and no provision for community oversight. Additionally, the expansion of Brown’s electronic services with the migration to Google Apps puts even more private data under the purview of this policy. Administrators now have access to calendar items stored in Google Calendar, documents produced in Google Docs, even photos in Picasa and articles in Google Reader.

Brown operates with many of the trappings of the criminal justice system — including a police force and a disciplinary process — and should offer similar protections. In the real world, police would need a search warrant from a judge prior to accessing similar information. There is no analogous requirement for independent authorization at Brown. While we recognize that the unique circumstances of a university environment may necessitate less stringent protection, the current system gives no protection.

The University wields a great deal of power over its students, who can be arrested by the Department of Public Safety. The administration can expel students from the University. With this degree of power, some level of due process and oversight is warranted.

The administration defends the policy by asserting that it is infrequently used. Because there is so little transparency, we just cannot be sure. Regardless of frequency of use, this power is still an egregious violation of students’ privacy.

Fortunately, some simple reforms would produce a privacy policy that balances important privacy protections with the school’s interests in providing a secure community and managing its resources.

One of the primary challenges in researching this policy was the sheer lack of transparency related to it. Community members have only very limited information on the policy’s history of use and mechanism of operation. The University should publicly provide basic, non-identifying narratives on all instances of email access by administrators at the conclusion of every semester. This requirement would not be difficult to implement. CIS already records these non-identifying narratives in its help desk system. This reporting mechanism is also analogous to the one used by the University’s disciplinary apparatus and DPS, so it is certainly not unprecedented. With the implementation of this reporting system, community members would be able to monitor the privilege’s use, which would help to preclude any possible instances of inappropriate use.

As stated above, analogous searches by local, state or federal law enforcement would require the acquisition of a search warrant, which requires law enforcement to justify a need for a search to a judge. The process of acquiring a warrant helps to prevent unjustified invasions of privacy by requiring independent authorization. It would be difficult, however, to implement a warrant system in the context of the Brown community, because we do not operate a judicial system analogous to the state or federal systems. In addition, a requirement to seek a warrant may create unnecessary hurdles in contexts where protections are not warranted, such as invocation of the email access privilege at the request of a student who forgets his or her password.

In order to provide the protections of the warrant system while preventing unnecessary hassle for administrators, attempts to use the email access privilege for purposes that may lead to disciplinary proceedings should require authorization by the University Disciplinary Council. Since the privilege is apparently rarely used in disciplinary proceedings, it should not be too onerous to seek authorization in the rare instances where violation of privacy may lead to substantial consequences for a community member.   

If the University were to implement the aforementioned reforms, it would be the first of its peers to do so. The fact that Brown would be unique should not dissuade reform, however. Instead, it should be incentive to pursue it. Brown is no stranger to novel reform that has improved the lives of its students. From its founding as the first non-denominational university in America to its introduction of the New Curriculum, Brown has consistently pursued potentially controversial innovation. University Hall should continue this tradition and implement a fair email privacy policy.

 

Ian Eppler ’13 is the president of the Brown chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU meets Tuesday nights at

9 p.m. in Wilson 106.