Hunt for media source in cheating scandal appears to have led to a bigger scandal

Last year, a cheating scandal rocked Harvard University.  Approximately 125 students were implicatedincluding two captains of the basketball team and players on the football, baseball, and hockey teams.  The debate over the alleged cheating on a take-home exam in the large GOV 1310 "Introduction to Congress" class was hotly debated; collaboration was reportedly encouraged on earlier exams.

I. Email Snooping Outed, University Defends It

But the scandal itself may have been merely the clouds before the storm.  Now Harvard is back in the news and under heavy criticism for combing employee emails, searching for the source of leaks of confidential emails involved in the cheating scandal.

The Boston Globe and The New York Times were among the first to report on the violation of employee privacy.  Bloomberg also reported on the topic.

The university acknowledged in the reports that it snooped on the password-protected university email accounts of its 16 resident deans, who sit on the board that probes academic misconduct.  The resident dean involved in forwarding two emails was unidentified, but the breach was ruled "inadvertent" and no disciplinary action was taken.

Kyle Casey
Harvard's leading scorer was forced to withdraw due to the cheating scandal.
[Image Source: BroBible]

In a statementMichael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College, defended the search arguing that while "without precedent" it was necessary to protect student privacy from faculty and the media.  The deans comment, "In every instance the actions and decisions in this case were motivated by the goals of protecting the integrity of our faculty-legislated processes and the privacy of our students."

In their comment, the deans state, "It was made clear at the time that absent clarification of what happened, an investigation would be required.  No one came forward."

They claim that only the subject line, time, and name of sender of emails was searched, and that no emails were opened/read.  Dean Smith and Harvard General Counsel Robert Iuliano approved the search, while Dean Hammonds supported it.

Harvard Dean
Harvard Dean Michael Smith approved the search of faculty emails. [Image Source: Harvard]

In a separate comment, Harvard President Drew Faust stated, "I feel very comfortable that great care was taken to safeguard the privacy of all concerned, especially our students, and to protect the confidentiality of the Administrative Board process."

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for the university, adds, "Any assertion that Harvard routinely monitors e-mails -- for any reason -- is patently false."

II. No Student Emails Were Leaked by Faculty

But the university's stance is drawing fire, as the leaked email in question -- which was leaked on Sept. 1 to the Harvard Crimson student newspaper -- was not a student email, as the university's statements seem to suggest.  Rather it was a confidential email by Administrative Board Secretary John Ellison to board members.

Thus the question is whether Harvard is falsely positioning the email leak as a student rights issue, when it really was a matter of internal employee discipline.

Leak -- blood
Harvard officials claim the leak might have endangered students.

The university suggests that this perspective is incorrect.  They argue that the presence of regular leaks of closed door board meetings and documents represented a threat to student security.  They point to a second leak that occurred weeks after the original week, detailing a closed-door meeting about the cheating scandal.

The deans comment in their statement, "While the specific document made public may be deemed by some as not particularly consequential, the disclosure of the document and nearly word-for-word disclosure of a confidential board conversation led to concerns that other information -- especially student information we have a duty to protect as private -- was at risk."

III. Civil Liberty Groups Blast Decision to Snoop

Civil liberties groups aren't buying that excuse.

Privacy counsel Chris Calabrese, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union advising legislators in Washington, comments to Bloomberg that email subject lines are still highly sensitive/private and should only be searched if a specific employee is suspected of violating workplace policies.

Civil liberties groups argue snooping is a slippery slope.
[Image Source: Dreamstime Illustrations]

He comments, "Individualized suspicion is the key element to a search.  [With subject lines] we’re still talking about the content of the communication.  If it wasn’t sensitive, they wouldn’t have wanted to search it."

Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), also is troubled by the search.  He tells Bloomberg, "Harvard had a very good policy for e-mail privacy.  Intellectual freedom is critical to the university community. So, the news that administrators searched the e-mail accounts of deans to try to uncover communications with journalists is both surprising and unsettling."

IV. Some University Officials Also Upset

And some academic officials are also upset about the search.

Jenn Nichols, associate secretary in the Washington-based American Association of University Professors’ department of academic freedom, tenure and governance comments, "Individuals should have the same assurance of e-mail privacy as when they send and receive envelopes through the physical mail system."

She argues the search is akin to opening private mail and reading it.

Former dean and current Harvard Computer Science Department professor Harry Lewis is also troubled by the search.  He comments to Bloomberg, "It’s sufficiently out of step with ordinary understandings of how we operate at Harvard."

Professor Lewis, who the Boston Globe describes as a "frequent thorn in the admin­istration’s side" says to the Boston Globe that he will respond by "probably, after four decades, respond by moving most of my personal and frivolous e-mail [to Gmail]."

Some faculty say they will move to Gmail following the search. [Image Source: CNN]

He adds, "Given the university’s encompassing view of its rights to scan ‘employee’ e-mail, including faculty e-mail when the faculty have administrative responsibilities.  I would not assume that the university would feel constrained."

V. Employee Policy Allows Email Snooping in Some Cases

Generally, the legality of an email search by an employer comes down to the employee policies that workers accept when they join a company or institution.  And at Harvard it is clear that employees have "no expectation of privacy" regarding their documents on work networks, according to the employee handbook.  The sole legal issue is that the employees involved were not notified.

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences does consider "faculty e-mail messages and other electronic documents stored on Harvard-owned computers to be confidential", but it makes it clear that internal investigations are exempt.  However, it requires that employees be notified of the search.

Ultimately, it appears that the university nearly acted within its rights.  However, ultimately the one major mistake appears to be that the employees involved were not notified; the resident deans were not informed in advance of the search.  Some argue the search might have been fairer, had there been more transparency throughout the process.

Deans Hammond and Smith apologize "if any resident deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient."

Harvard graduation
Harvard administrators goofed in not informing employees of the search.

In a blog, two other Computer Science Department professors -- Michael Mitzenmacher and Greg Morrisett -- argue in support of their employer, saying the incident is being "blown out of proportion".  

They write, "In my opinion, a Resident Dean made an understandable (and I would argue small) error in judgment in forwarding an email marked confidential.  The administration was rightly concerned.  In my opinion, the administration made an error in judgment by not treating the Resident Deans as faculty and strictly following the Harvard policy by informing them that a search was being done as part of an investigation into the matter.  I'm not clear if they feel they made an error in judgment, but they have apologized."

It appears that debate over the email leaks regarding the scandal may ultimately overshadow the cheating scandal itself.

Sources: Harvard, The Crimson, Boston Globe, The New York Times

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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