Penn students say no to e-snooping

by Maggie Shnayerson | 5/9/00 5:00am

In a large step for proponents of "e-privacy" on college campuses, the University of Pennsylvania's student council voted last week to restrict administrators' rights to read students' e-mail.

Previously, a search of a student's e-mail account at the university only required a "good faith belief" there was a reason for such a probe.

Members of the Undergraduate Assembly at Penn demanded changes in the policy, citing the loose language as vague and unreasonable, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

The new version of the university's policy specifies certain conditions under which Penn officials can investigate personal e-mail.

Violations of the law or of university policy, the continuing soundness of Penn's computer system and the acquisition of information in an emergency were named as the only situations in which Penn authorities are now permitted to scrutinize individual e-mail.

This latest policy at Penn is still more obscure than Dartmouth's own policy on computer privacy, which states simply that "censorship is not compatible with the goals of Dartmouth," and that "members of the Dartmouth community are entitled to privacy in their use of information resources."

The lack of specific language in the Student Handbook regarding students' rights to BlitzMail privacy is because a policy allowing administrators to search personal e-mail has never been seriously considered at Dartmouth.

"Student privacy and rights to privacy are things that are really cherished at Dartmouth," Dean of the College James Larimore told The Dartmouth.

"I would be very surprised if a policy ever were proposed, let alone considered," he said when asked if he thought Dartmouth would ever allow its administrators free reign in searching students' accounts.

"That would step far into an area where students' rights to privacy would be jeopardized," he added.

He remarked however, that Dartmouth officials would be compelled to search BlitzMail accounts in certain situations.

"If there is reason to believe that a student is at risk of harming himself or others then we would consider looking into material in a written or electronic form, but it would really have to be under life- or safety-threatening circumstances," he said.

Larimore voiced his opinion that today's excitement over electronic communication should have college administrators thinking under different parameters with regard to discipline.

"With changes in technology it's important that we take a step back and think about our students -- what privacy expectations people can and should have."

New technology has transformed college life enough to allow new forms of cheating, as was evidenced in this winter's CS4 scandal in which some students may have downloaded answers to homework from unprotected sites on the Internet, Larimore pointed out.

Therefore, it is essential "for each of us to push each other to ask ourselves what we should do when others are doing things that we think are unethical."

Decisions on whether to investigate student e-mail in situations similar to last term's cheating allegations in order to determine violators of College policy "should be done on a case-by-case basis," Larimore said.

No BlitzMail accounts were searched for the CS4 investigation.