SACUA members meet on Zoom, with some members together in person while others participate remotely.
Courtesy of Samantha Rich

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The Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs met in a hybrid format in the Ruthven Building Monday afternoon to discuss the use of Slack between students and faculty. 

Slack is an online messaging platform designed for workplace use. It includes features such as topic-specific channels, private messaging and the ability to integrate other applications, including Google Drive and Office 365. The platform exploded with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent increase in remote working and learning environments. 

SACUA hosted three guests to discuss how Slack operates, how its data can be accessed by University officials and how to promote healthy communication on the platform. Robert Jones, executive director of support services for Information and Technology Services (ITS), emphasized that the protections the University currently offers for University-affiliated Slack channels and users are the same as those in place for Google Suite use. 

“From an IT perspective … all of these tools are enterprise systems, and they are companies that the U-M lawyers negotiate with to make sure appropriate data protection agreements are in place,” Jones said. “So from a legal standpoint, your engagement with Google is similar to your engagement with Slack in that … we don’t allow these companies to sell your data, and there are safeguards in place around data lifecycle and things like that, that you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily get with a personal relationship with Slack or with some email provider.”

Tom Braun, SACUA member and professor in the School of Public Health, expressed concern over the availability of Slack data in the case of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request or any other investigation. Since 1967, FOIA has allowed the public to request government documents or records. Jones explained that conversations on the platform can be accessed if there is a situation that demands it. 

“If there is a FOIA request that comes through, and the University deems it’s an appropriate FOIA request, currently, we can access anything from a DM to the conversations in any channels,” Jones said. “And again, I just want to stress (that) when it’s accessed, it is logged as well.”

Rebekah Modrak, SACUA member and professor in the School of Art & Design, had similar questions regarding how deleted messages on Slack can be accessed in comparison to other platforms like Gmail. Sol Bermann, executive director of information assurance and Chief Information Security Officer, explained to the assembly how Gmail data can be retrieved. 

“For Gmail, if you delete something out of your Gmail box right now, it will stay there for 30 days where we can retrieve it, and then it is permanently flushed, except if you delete it out of your trash yourself,” Bermann said. “There are ways, particularly if someone is under either a(n) investigation or is part of an e-discovery effort, there’s a tool we have that will save things ad infinitum, but that’s only used, again, for those very edge cases.” 

Jones described how Slack data is kept and accessed. 

“Slack data is kept indefinitely,” Jones said. “That’s currently how we’re set up. So if it’s deleted, you won’t see it, but we currently keep it indefinitely. The one thing I would say is I’ve not tested that directly to then recover archives … but that’s the current policy.”

Kentaro Toyama, SACUA member and professor in the School of Information, asked the assembly’s guests if they could incorporate SACUA’s input into negotiations with Slack.

“Is there some way we can institutionalize when you’re negotiating the new platform, that somehow SACUA is involved in the discussion?” Toyama asked. “For example (we could have a say in) how long this data should be kept and the specifics of the agreement.”

Ravi Pendse, vice president for information technology and Chief Information Officer, said University ITS would be happy to further engage with SACUA members for their input on U-M technology.

Summer News Editor Samantha Rich can be reached at sammrich@umich.edu