Security

Harvard secretly scanned faculty emails to find source of leaked cheating memo

If you’re doing something illegal/regrettable/potentially damaging, it’s probably best not to do it using your company email address.

That’s always been sage advice, but it’s being hammered home with the latest controversy coming out of Harvard University.

Last fall, Harvard said nearly half of those enrolled in a 275-student class had cheated on a take-home exam in Spring 2012. Soon after, someone at Harvard leaked to the press an email detailing how faculty members should advise students charged with cheating. That was a big no-no.

To figure out the source of the leak, Harvard went digital and scanned the email accounts of 16 of its resident deans, reports the Boston Globe.

While that’s bad enough, what makes it worse is that Harvard only informed those affected last week– months after the scans occurred.

Harvard’s defense? It’s all about protecting its students. Says Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Michael D. Smith:

If circumstances were to arise that gave reason to believe that the Administrative Board process might have been compromised, then Harvard College would take all necessary and appropriate actions under our procedures to safeguard the integrity of that process, which is designed to protect the rights of our students to privacy and due process.

In spite of the scans, the university still hasn’t charged anyone with wrongdoing, which likely means it couldn’t figure out where the leak came from. Either way, Harvard’s biggest concern going forward will be dealing with the questions of whether the scan violated its electronic privacy policy, which mandates that faculty be notified in advance if their email accounts are searched.

Harvard Computer Science Professor Harry Lewis chimed in on the story in his personal blog:

This seems to me a sad incident which raises many questions. If an employee’s boss wants to spy on her, who has to sign off on it and how does it get done? How many such searches have been done over the past five years? Is it always done without informing the target? Have the targets generally been people like these resident deans — people with both teaching and administrative appointments?

Lewis doesn’t know the full story, but the situation has forced him to consider moving all of his personal email to his non-Harvard email address. And I suspect he’s soon to have lots of company.

Photo: mararie/Flickr