University officials and students have worked to protect electronic privacy since long before Sept. 11. But in the midst of a war on terrorism, increased sensitivity to invasion of privacy has posed questions on the vulnerability of e-mail and other electronic resources.
“The University takes a very reasonable approach,” said Bill Aikman, executive director of the University’s Information Technology Central Services.
E-mail stored on the University network is backed up on digital tapes and taken to an outside facility where it is stored for one week before it is erased and the tapes are reused. Aikman said these backups are created so that files can be restored when a system failure occurs.
ITCS also monitors network performance by collecting data on websites visited over the University network. Aikman said they analyze usage patterns based on residence halls or buildings to determine flow rates, and so they know when problems occur and how to get at them.
Aikman maintains that the University does not monitor its students through either of these systems, and he said he would find it personally unacceptable if he found a staff member doing so.
“We don’t have time and there is no interest in that,” he said. “We would only do that if by a … court order or subpoena.”
“Students can rest easy on many issues of their privacy.”
He also said that for someone to break into file or voice mail systems, they would have to physically break into the facility and obtain administrative access codes, and he said the systems are “not easily hacked into.”
But if the information were to be subpoenaed, or if a court order were issued, Aikman said the University would comply and give the files to law enforcement officials.
Members of the campus chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union feel that the mere accumulation of this information is leaving a door open for the invasion of privacy.
“Unless there is a specific policy in place, there is always the opportunity for invasion of a constitutional right to privacy,” said LSA senior Jim Secreto of the campus ACLU.
“Most students are under the assumption that (this information) can only be accessed by themselves. They operate under the assumption of privacy, but it is not always the truth,” he said.”
Aikman said the policies could change further under the U.S.A. Patriot Act, a bill signed into law last October to increase the ability of law enforcement in identifying terrorists. He said that the University has not yet been asked to give information to the FBI or to use a listening device.
The Students’ Rights Commission of the Michigan Student Assembly has done an informal investigation into the status of electronic privacy at the University, and has the intentions of making the university’s administration aware of the need for privacy protection.
“Some of our concerns, especially e-mail and internet browsing privacy were addressed” in the meetings, said LSA freshman Andrew Block of the MSA commission. “They pointed us to the policies where our concerns were addressed.”
“We both want to move e-privacy in the same direction, but sometimes results we want to see the soonest are not the exact same priorities,” he said.
The commission hopes to amend the Statement of Student Rights, commonly referred to as “the Code”, to improve the communication of the University’s privacy priorities.
“It’s not us against the University, but us telling the University what they need to do to have students feel like they have say in changing policies that effect them,” Block said.
Aikman also said he sees one of his priorities as improving the clarity of existing policies, to put it in line with the way ITCS now treats student privacy.
“There are some policies that are unwritten that we just do anyway,” Aikman said. “The way the policy is written it seems to apply to faculty and staff, but we apply it to everyone.”