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Source: itBusiness.ca

Posted on June 19, 2009

      Lakehead University decreased the privacy of faculty by switching to Google's Gmail service for campus communications, but is allowed to do so because there's no requirement that they provide private e-mail communications, according to an arbitrator.

      Lakehead chose to replace a failing e-mail system run 2003 Sun Microsystems servers in 2006 with Google Apps for Education. It was considered a boon for the IT department that had been struggling to meet the rise in pressure on the e-mail system and battled against constant crashes. Google's hosted service required no down payment, barely any maintenance on the part of IT staff, and provided a responsive, quality experience for all users.

      But some faculty at the Thunder Bay, Ont.-based university felt their privacy was now at greater risk because of American anti-terrorism laws. The Patriot Act, for example, allows for U.S. authorities to search through the databases of a U.S. company without need for a warrant, and would prevent Google from even informing its customers of the search. Sole arbitrator Joseph Carrier did agree with that position in making his decision, says Jim Turk, executive director of Canadian Association of University Teachers. The Association had supported Lakehead's faculty in the arbitration. "We're obviously disappointed that the arbitrator ruled as he did," Turk says. "The interesting thing is he acknowledged our concern, and said that the faculty at Lakehead was at risk as a result of turning the e-mail over to Google."

      In the decision issued by Carrier released June 15, he acknowledges that Lakehead's faculty had less privacy as a result of the administration's decision. Comparing the previous e-mail system to Google's terms of service, Carrier found Google's were much more liberal, when there was the potential for e-mail privacy to be compromised. The old policy protected privacy unless consent was given, or in some limited circumstances.

      But in reviewing the collective agreement between the university and its faculty, Carrier finds that the university isn't required to provide privacy assurance for e-mail communications. "While I am sympathetic to their plight and the fact that big brother could be watching over their e-mail communications," Carrier says in his decision. "One should consider e-mail communications as confidential as are postcards."

      During arbitration, a number of technology experts gave advice on the matter. Opinions varied on whether an e-mail handled by a U.S.-based company would be at more risk of exposure to authorities. But in the end, Carrier seems to agree that it would be. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Patriot Act and the Protect America Act all provide methods for U.S. agents to compel Google to expose communications.

      Lakehead feels satisfied its position has been upheld and will continue to use Google's services, says Michael Pawlowski, vice-president of administration and finance at the university. "Our view has always been that e-mail is not a secure communications method," he says. "We were pleased that our decision was upheld by the arbitrator. It was a good decision for this university." The administration will allow faculty to use other e-mail addresses for their official communications if they choose. Faculty can decide to have a personal e-mail address posted on the Web site contact directory. But most will use the Google system. "There are all using it right now," Pawlowski says. "It was only one or two individuals that had the issue to my knowledge."

      But when faculty are required to communicate with the administration, they will be unable to avoid transmitting their message to a Google server, Turk points out. "If you reply to them, even from a different account, it goes through a Google server," he says. "That doesn't solve the problem."

      The association has no means of challenging the decision, although they are disappointed with it, Turk says. They will be advising faculty across the country to review their collective agreements to ensure that it has clear language that prevents the administration from putting faculty at greater risk. "Tighter language to prevent what happened from happening," he says. "A reasonable reading of the language would mean the employer should not voluntarily put faculty members at greater risk."

      Google has used its rollout at Lakehead as a case study in its effort to grow the user base for Google Apps for Education. It is used by both the faculty and the staff. By using the free system, the school saves millions of dollars a year on maintenance, licencing fees, and more. "We are happy with the arbitrator's decision and look forward to continuing to work with Lakehead University," a Google spokesperson says.

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