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Harvard scrambles to explain why it secretly searched deans' emails

Jaikumar Vijayan | March 12, 2013
Harvard University officials scrambled Monday to contain the fallout from a damaging report in The Boston Globe over the weekend disclosing how administrators secretly accessed email accounts belonging to 16 resident deans at the university.

According to Lewis, Harvard's faculty email privacy policies prohibit administrators from accessing faculty emails without notice except under a narrow set of circumstances. The university's policies for staff emails are less robust from a privacy perspective.

"Whichever policy is applicable, this way of handling the situation seems to me -- well, dishonorable," Lewis said in his blog, in response to the Globe story. "Why not tell people you are reading their email? Other than avoiding, perhaps, the embarrassment of acknowledging that you are doing something to which the targets would reasonably object if they knew it," he wrote.

Michael Mitzenmacher, a Harvard professor of computer science, disagreed that the incident represents a moral failing on the part of the university. However, the university should have informed resident deans of the search all the same, he said in a blog post on Monday.

Even though the search was targeted and only involved a search for subject lines and not email content, the fact remains that a search was conducted, Mitzenmacher said.

"I don't think this care offers an excuse for not following the policy of informing the Resident Deans of the search. I would still say a search on their email had been performed and, from my understanding of the policy, they should have been notified. This is something the faculty and administration can and should discuss further," Mitzenmacher said.

The New York Times quoted Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree as expressing shock and dismay over the incident. "I hope that it means the faculty will now have something to say about the fact that these things like this can happen."

In Monday's statement, Smith and Hammonds acknowledged the university had bungled in not informing the resident deans of the search. But they maintained that they remained silent to protect the privacy of the dean who had forwarded the email. The fact that no human had looked at the emails was another reason for remaining silent.

"We understand that others may see the situation differently, and we apologize if any Resident Deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient," the university noted."

 

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