Maintaining perspective on privacy

Privacy is a pretty dubious concept at university. You just have time to accept that when sharing one shower between twelve people, you get used to finding your flatmate passed out naked on the kitchen floor, and you eventually learn to block out the questionable noises drifting through paper thin walls late at night. It’s all part of the experience.

However, there are certain privacies in life in general that I like to think are a given. Our mail isn’t censored and our phones aren’t tapped- it’s one of the advantages of living in a liberal democracy. Except perhaps not. It has recently come to light that the University in fact owns all the emails received and sent from all student university e-mail addresses. This means that we are fully accountable for everything we put into writing.

The number of people who are conducting illicit affairs or organising secret revolutions through their university e-mail is likely to be pretty limited, so it is easy to question why this lack of privacy even matters. After all, should the University wish to trawl through my 421 e-mails, all they would find is hundreds of updates from everything from cheerleading to knitting society (I may have got a little carried away at fresher’s fair). But, for me at least, the issue lies in the principle of the matter.

We live in a society where we are caught on CCTV an average of 300 times a day, where our DNA is taken from us at every given opportunity and where the introduction of ID cards is imminent. It’s no big brother state but it certainly doesn’t promote individual freedom and privacy in any shape or form.

So why on earth does the university feel more surveillance is justified? Yes, they can go on and on about student safety and welfare, but it makes me shudder to think of all the atrocities that have been committed in the name of ‘citizen protection’. While I am sure militarising the university isn’t on the cards just yet, they seem to be going to unnecessary lengths to keep tabs on us. Besides, where is the fun in life without some risk?

As a student it is your role to send angry e-mails rallying against the University administration and planning to overthrow ‘the man’, or whoever happens to occupy the biggest office in Heslington Hall. It’s a rebelliousness and a passion that should be allowed to thrive in the university environment rather than be restricted by overzealous security policies. We have our parents for that already.

Do not let this be the start of a new trend for the University. Possession of our e-mails may be one thing, but we cannot allow further intrusions into our privacy to become a simple fact of life.

One comment

  1. It has recently come to light that the University in fact owns all the emails received and sent from all student university e-mail addresses.

    Where has this come from? Do you have more details, or links?

    First, you seem to be confusing ownership (copyright) with privacy. But assuming you actually mean privacy, this would fall under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

    Under RIPA, reasonable efforts must be made to inform users about email monitoring. The only reference I can find is in the university’s Regulations for Use of Computing Facilities, which is likely to be too vague and too well hidden. Certainly I have never been informed of such a policy.

    10. The University reserves the right to monitor the use of its computing facilities. Users must co-operate with any investigations.

    Also under RIPA, monitoring of personal communications (and it is fair to assume that most student email falls into this category) is not allowed.

    So, if the university is routinely monitoring student emails, it is likely to be breaking the law. This assumes the university would be classed as an employer under RIPA. If not, they would probably have fewer rights to intercept and monitor email.

    More from OUT-LAW.COM.

    This means that we are fully accountable for everything we put into writing.

    You are liable for everything you send by email anyway. The question is whether the university would be jointly liable.

    But on the general point, you’re absolutely right. I think Bruce Schneier says it best.

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