More secret email searches revealed at Harvard

A dean at Harvard University who led a probe into leaked information in a cheating scandal admitted Tuesday that she failed to report two secret searches of a fellow dean's email accounts.

At a meeting of the university's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Dean Evelynn M. Hammond disclosed that she authorized two email searches that she failed to report to the dean of the FAS, Michael D. Smith.

By failing to report those searches, they were omitted from a communication issued by the university on March 11, after news of the email searches, conducted last fall, was revealed in the Boston Globe.

In a prepared statement, Hammonds explained that one of the unreported searches was conducted to determine if the dean who leaked an internal document had any contact with two students involved in the cheating scandal.

The other search was of the suspected dean's personal email account at the university for subject line information, and the student's names. Previously, the university said only the administrative email accounts of the 16 deans suspected of leaking information to the Globe and Harvard Crimson were searched for information.

"Let me be clear, no emails were opened and no content was searched," she told those attending the meeting. "This search was conducted because I was concerned that the deliberations of the [FAS Administrative Board] had been compromised and that this loss of confidentiality would result in reputational damage to students whose cases were under review, and undermine our process on ensuring that all students get a fair hearing."

Harvard President Drew Faust also addressed those attending the FAS forum. She found the university's policies regarding electronic communication wanting. "[W]e have highly inadequate institutional policy and process around the rapidly and constantly evolving world of electronic communication," she said. "We have multiple policies across the university that vary across schools, with some faculties lacking any explicit policies at all."

That lack of university policies in the electronic realm, she observed, "constitutes a significant institutional failure to provide adequate guidance and direction in a digital environment that is a powerful and rapidly changing force in all of our lives."

[See also: Privacy war heats up between ACLU, DOJ]

Those kinds of policies are important for a copasetic workplace. "When an employer engages in a search of employee email, they have to be very careful to set out the terms of what they're doing internally and to make sure their agents are following the rules -- otherwise you can get yourself into quite a mess," said Neil Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

The people ordering a search also need to be on the same page as those conducting the search. "Administrators have to have a grasp of technology and IT people have to embrace privacy as a professional value," Richards added.

An institution investigating an internal data breach has a dilemma. "If I call you and say, 'We're going to look through your email because we think you did something wrong,' you may go and clean up the evidence," said Mike Corn, chief privacy and security officer at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

"If there's an investigation going on that's sensitive and could involve unethical behavior, does our obligation to treat you respectfully trump our obligations to the investigation?" Corn asked.

"That's a very nuanced and difficult question to answer without a specific context," he continued, "but it goes to the heart of the Harvard matter."

In explaining why she failed to report the two searches when contributing to the March 11 apology statement, Hammond said she failed "to recollect the additional searches."

That's disquieting, said Robert L. Shibley, senior vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia. "If that's true, that's very disturbing," he told CSO. "What it suggests is that reading emails at Harvard is so common that it's not even worth remembering."

"I would like to think that if a university is going to be scanning emails that would be unusual enough that you'd remember all the investigations that you've done," Shibley added.

Read more about data privacy in CSOonline's Data Privacy section.

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