On The Flip Side
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 23:03
Investigation Was Justified
by Julie Orenstein
The cheating scandal that rocked Harvard University last year, involving the investigation of over 100 students for dishonestly collaborating on a take-home test, has reemerged with a new element: violation of privacy. Administrators searched email accounts belonging to 16 resident deans, who advise students as well as teach some classes, searching for a leak that released an internal memo containing advice for students who were being investigated. The story of the leak broke in The Boston Globe and The Harvard Crimson following the document’s release. The decision to search the email accounts was part of a true effort to root out the source of the leak, which publicized confidential documents containing student information. Although it was later discovered that the dean responsible for the released email erred inadvertently and did not mean to breach confidentiality, the administration had a legitimate concern for protecting sensitive information.
“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,” wrote deans Michael Smith and Evelyn Hammonds in a statement from the university.
The main defense for the Harvard administration’s actions is that the search was only of administrative email accounts, not personal accounts (Harvard deans have both). Despite contracts that might dictate or limit employee-employer privileges with regard to technology, anyone in a business setting should understand that their emails are not entirely private and may be subjected to search. Furthermore, the emails’ content was not searched—information technology employees were instructed not to read the messages, and instead, only subject lines were examined for words that would indicate the emails contained leaked content.
The search, according to the statement from Smith and Hammonds, was “narrow, careful, and precise” and was approved by the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the University General Counsel and supported by the dean of Harvard College.
Though any unwarranted invasion of privacy should not be tolerated, this case can be justified to a certain extent due to its intent: to protect the university against any further leaks of confidential information that could prove damaging. The search was relatively non-invasive and Harvard has reaffirmed that it does not routinely monitor emails, therefore such harsh criticism is somewhat unwarranted.
Unjust Invation of Privacy
by Maggie Maretz
For The Heights
Although Harvard’s administration hacked the email accounts of 16 of the university’s deans with the intention of locating the leak to the media in order to prevent future scandals, they wound up attracting even further negative attention toward the institution, calling into question the ethics by which they are attempting to handle what was already an ethical problem. The privacy allotted to the resident deans—who play a role that falls somewhere between an administrator and a professor and were responsible for advising the students accused of cheating—is somewhat of a grey area. It is not entirely clear whether Harvard’s policy, which guarantees the privacy of all electronic accounts of full-time faculty, extends to the resident deans. But many of Harvard’s staff members are indignant at the violation, arguing that in the case of email accounts it is always better to err on the side of caution.
Furthermore, the search itself was for an innocuous administrative memo that was forwarded by a dean to a student, each of them unaware of the confidentiality of the document. The dean responsible was not even punished, which begs the question: if the memo was so harmless, why was it necessary for the university to breach the privacy of its employees rather than simply asking them who had forwarded it? It might be easier to understand the hacking if this dean had seriously erred in judgment, but based on the results of the investigation, it is pretty clear that he had not.
Perhaps worse of all is the way this story further taints the reputation of integrity at Harvard, beyond the damage done by the cheating scandal. It leaves a worsened impression because, in the words of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government professor Timothy McCarthy, “it involves adults who should know better—really smart, powerful adults, with complete job security.”