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Is E-mail Privacy a Concern?

This is a letter about e-mail privacy. Our understanding is that the University does not erase the e-mail generated by faculty, staff, and students. It all exists on hard disks or backup tapes.
Should we be concerned about this situation? There is no reason to think that the administration monitors e-mail or uses it inappropriately. However, administrations and historical circumstances change. What if during the 1950s e-mail had existed in a form easily accessible by university and government officials?
This is not a legal issue. Court decisions make it quite clear that within reasonable limits the University as our employer can do what it wants with our e-mail. Federal law gives greater protection to students.
Of course, we all have been warned not to consider e-mail private, and we should avoid writing anything that we would prefer not to be made public. Nonetheless, we believe that the University should adopt a policy that guarantees as much privacy as possible to faculty and staff.
This guarantee of privacy seems to us to require two things:
(1) The administration of the University should adopt a formal policy on e-mail privacy. In 1996, the Council Committee on Communications drafted a sensible policy on e-mail privacy that was adopted by Council and SEC. It was submitted for review to the General Counsel in September 1996. The General Counsel has not been willing to work towards a policy that confers reasonable protection. The policy should be vetted and adopted without delay.
(2) With the understanding that they would lose backup copies, faculty, staff, and students should be permitted to require that their e-mail be erased routinely.
If there is widespread support for these proposals, we hope that the Faculty Senate and University Council will pursue them vigorously.

-- David Brownlee,

Professor of the History of Art


-- Michael B. Katz,

Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History

Reponse on E-mail Privacy

Professors Brownlee and Katz are correct that the University does not have an explicit policy regarding privacy of electronic communications. Discussions regarding the advisability and nature of such a policy continue, but it has not been possible to reach consensus among the parties concerned. My office continues to work towards such a consensus. E-mail at the University is provided by a variety of different offices: ISC manages some servers, but most faculty and students get e-mail from their schools. I am impressed and pleased by the way such providers of service work to respect the privacy of electronic communications to a remarkably high and praiseworthy degree.

-- James O'Donnell,

Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues can be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated.--Ed.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, March 17, 1998, Volume 44, Number 25