The University Counselling Service has admitted a “serious breach of trust” after releasing the email addresses of over three hundred students and staff taking counselling.
The addresses were accidentally put in the cc field of an email sent out on February 22 to 344 people on the counselling database, making them visible to all recipients. The identities of those with University email addresses can be easily ascertained using the ‘Contact People’ function on University website.
Minutes after the mistake was made a second email was sent out reading: “URGENT PLEASE DELETE LAST EMAIL (Access to Counselling Building) Information was included that should not have been sent”. Two hours later the Counselling Service sent out a ‘recall’, designed to delete emails in the recipients’ inbox. However, the recall email also included the 344 addresses in the cc field, revealing all the emails for a second time. The recall was only effective if the email was had not already been opened. A final email was sent out by Senior Counsellor Mandy Alderson explaining the situation and apologising for the mistake.
Student Support Services Manager Steve Page would not reveal the identity of the individual who sent out the email but confirmed that they were still on the staff and were not facing any disciplinary procedures. Page said: “The person who made the mistake realised they made the mistake within seconds actually, and apart from making the mistake everything they then did was the right thing to try and recover it and minimise the damage.
“I got hauled out of a meeting within a few minutes of it having happened and as many people as possible were involved in trying to think about what could be done to try and minimise the harm once it happened,” he said.
When asked about the implications of the error Page said: “I’m concerned it may have [damaged trust in the Counselling Service] because trust is part of the foundation of counselling. I’m not aware of many students who have voiced concerns, there have been some but not a large number, but that doesn’t tell us anything apart from whose spoken.”
A second year PhD student whose email was amongst those revealed described the mistake as a “fundamental breach of trust.” He added: “As a research student I’m responsible for working with undergraduate students, taking practicals, marking work, etc. My use of the Counselling Service is now known to those others on the list with whom I may be in a supervisory role.
“The fact that they have demonstrated that in their current form they cannot be trusted to maintain anonymity puts those people who most need help at risk of choosing not to use the service.”
Page said: “We’re very sorry it happened and we’re taking it very seriously. There is nothing we can do that undoes it having happened so all we can do now is do things to make sure it doesn’t happen again but also to respond to anyone who has been troubled or affected.”