The Harvard University dean who approved a secret search of faculty email to track down a media leak about student cheating will step down on July 1, the dean announced on Tuesday.
According to the Harvard Gazette, Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds will return to teaching and research in the departments of the History of Science and African and African American Studies at the university, located in the US city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Hammonds found herself in hot water in March, after the Boston Globe broke the story about her authorization of a secret search of 16 deans’ email accounts.
Harvard admitted to the Globe that it secretly gained access to the email accounts of the resident deans but that it was necessary to safeguard the privacy of students involved in a 2012 cheating scandal.
That scandal involved some 125 students enrolled in a spring 2012 class about government.
In a statement issued on Monday, Hammonds and Dean Michael D. Smith confirmed that a “very narrow, careful, and precise subject-line search” of official university email accounts had been approved and carried out by the university’s IT department in the fall of 2012.
The deans emphasized that only the subject lines, not the content of the emails, were searched and read:
"To be clear: No one's emails were opened and the contents of no one’s emails were searched by human or machine. The subject-line search turned up two emails with the queried phrase, both from one sender. Even then, the emails were not opened, nor were they forwarded or otherwise shared with anyone in IT, the administration, or the board. Only a partial log of the 'metadata' - the name of the sender and the time the emails were sent - was returned."
Faculty members’ reaction to the news that their employer had searched their email had been fast and furious.
One, Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College and a professor of computer science at the university, questioned why the higher-ups didn’t simply ask who had sent information about the cheating to the Harvard Crimson newspaper, from whence it made its way to the Boston Globe.
In fact, the university didn’t inform faculty of the email search until the Boston Globe asked about it, the Globe reported.
Lewis, in his blog postings, poses questions that are relevant to many employees in many other organizations when it comes to what type of expectations we should have about the privacy of our work email accounts:
"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?"
Whether or not you know the answers to these thoughtful questions as they pertain to your own employer, it’s likely safe to assume that your business email account is considered fair game for surveillance.
Can we blame institutions for this? As Harvard emphasized, it has a responsibility to protect students’ privacy.
Other businesses are obligated to protect intellectual privacy and to ensure that employees aren’t using their business accounts to break the law.
Whether you agree with the fairness or not, bear in mind that Big Brother could be watching.