The University’s Information
Technology Central Services has implemented a new confidentiality
upgrade for campus e-mail groups, which took effect Jan. 10. Based
upon a request from the University Civil Liberties Board in
December 2002, the software upgrade will allow group owners the
option to conceal member lists from public view on the University
directory, thereby permitting students to join groups yet remain
anonymous to everyone but the owners. Students can also hide
themselves completely from any directory searches. This increased
privacy is welcome, but the technology must be revamped to give
students more autonomy in the display of their directory
profiles.

Laura Wong

The technology is conceptually flawed in that viable privacy
options are at the behest of group leaders, not actual members.
Those who initiate or lead the e-mail group are the only ones
allowed to enact “privacy flags” to keep membership
information secret. If a group leader does not want to enforce the
flags, members cannot attain privacy, even if a vast majority of
the group desires it. Group leaders can also manipulate flags,
turning them on and off at will. The uncertainty of secrecy is
likely to deter new membership.

The software change must be altered so that students, rather
than group leaders, control their own privacy options. As of now,
students are given the opportunity to hide themselves from all
directory searches and will continue to be able to do so under the
upgrade, but that sort of “all or nothing” privacy is
not practical. Being listed under the directory has many benefits.
E-mail lists are an excellent vehicle for students to communicate
and network. If a student is hidden from all directory searches,
that student could not be contacted by fellow classmates concerned
about a homework assignment or an organization that might be of
interest.

Moreover, with secret memberships, the potential exists for
people to place other students on user groups they do not want to
belong to and then anonymously spam them, safely hidden behind a
digital cloak of shadows. ITCS should ensure that secret
memberships lead to stable communities, not increased spam.

The technology must find a middle-ground so that students can
join email groups and choose which, if any, memberships should be
hidden from their directory profiles. A student must be allowed to
be selective, displaying an affiliation with an intramural sports
team perhaps, while hiding a fondness for a controversial political
party. Current technical “bugs” such as being listed
unknowingly in an e-mail group and not being able to remove
membership have to be ameliorated to protect both student privacy
and to reduce the incidence of spam e-mail.

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