It’s fascinating to watch the good people at Harvard twist in the breeze caused by their current search scandal. At the center of the controversy are the searches they did on the email of several Harvard Resident Deans. Resident Deans are what most regular schools would call “Resident Advisers” they share accommodation with students and offer advice. Harvard essentially admitted that it had searched through the Harvard (as opposed to personal) mail of several advisers looking for the source of a leak to media of information from the Harvard board about how students caught cheating might handle the accusation. The theory was that a resident Dean had forwarded it to students and either the Dean or the students had leaked it to the media.
“No one’s e-mails were opened, and the contents of no one’s e-mails were searched by human or machine”
What strikes me as horribly disingenuous is their claim that they only searched the titles of email, presumably hoping that they would find a note titled “FWD: Don’t leak this to the media it’s about student cheating“. Harvard insists, “No one’s e-mails were opened, and the contents of no one’s e-mails were searched by human or machine”. They did indeed track down the leaked info to an email on the subject forwarded by a Resident Dean to two students accused of cheating.
The kerfuffle, is of course, centered around privacy. How could an institution as traditionally liberal as Harvard engage in such authoritarian snooping? It turns out they do, because they can. It’s the same answer that would be given by the vast majority of businesses anywhere. Email is not the confessional. If you use company email on company servers or another tool (such as Skype) on company servers or on company time, you can have no real expectation of privacy… get over it and move on. Nobody, not even a Harvard Dean, is immune from their communication being searched by their employer without notice or permission. Harvard says “that under some circumstances, the university can search a faculty member’s Harvard e-mail accounts, but that the faculty member must be notified beforehand or soon after“. “Or soon after” is effectively exactly the same as “not at all”.
Search pervades and invades our lives at pretty much every level. Mostly for the good, it allows us access to information and convenience like never before. The flip side is that the Internet is now your permanent record.