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Some Days in the Life - Privacy and Other People's Computers

Posted 4/22/99

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Occasionally, we restrict the amount of time our students can be on our E-Mail system, because they're using it half the day. So, we cut it back so the only thing they have time to do is access their assignments and send their attached assignments to their professors.

This morning, a student was asking to have the restriction lifted because we barely give him enough time to read and answer his e-mail to his friends, and now he doesn't have time to do his work. Sometimes, they miss the point in a huge horking way.

Which brings up the concept of student privacy in e-mail. Whenever we happen to intercept an e-mail (which we don't go looking for unless we develop a reason to go looking) that's bad for a student, they always ask the same thing. "How could you invade my privacy like that?"

Which leads us to today's topic. "Privacy and Other People's Computers."

I have better things to do with my time than to read the e-mail of fifteen year olds. It's terribly boring stuff to anyone but the recipient. The same is true of the Dean of Students, the Systems Administrator, etc. on down the line. However, the simple fact is -- this isn't the students' e-mail system. They didn't buy and install it, they aren't maintaining it, they aren't paying the costs of the connection to the Internet, and it's not there for their purposes. It's there for academic purposes and the academic program.

(The argument that they're paying tuition and therefore they did is wrong on two counts. First off, not a single one of our students is actually paying for his Brewster education. Their parents are, and their parents, universally, support our policy in this. It's called "keeping an eye on the kids. Secondly, the tuition being paid is for a program they're signing up for. It's not a la carte. "Oh, I'd like the math class with a side of private e-mail access please." Our machine, our rules. You pay, you play by the handbook. Especially at a private school, where if you don't like our rules you can go to public school like everyone else, for "free.")

And everything on that machine is accessible to the administration, and the machine is not "private" in any sense of the word. We tell them this at orientation. We have this in the Community Handbook and the Tech Handbook.

It's the only way we can work, for two reasons. One, they're children -- legally and generally emotionally -- and we're responsible for them under "in loco parentis," which is Latin for "we're insane enough to act like their parents." As such, we have to try to educate and raise them as best as we possibly can. Without being 'fair' about it. Fair is irrelevant. Two -- when the students go out into the real world, their work e-mail is going to operate under exactly the same principle as their school e-mail does now. Their employers will run it, own the machine that provides it, and will not consider it private.

Your employers do the same with your e-mail. And if they're ethical, they don't go rooting around in it for no good reason. But they will go rooting around in it if they have a good reason.

The sooner these kids get that soaked into their skin, the easier their life is going to be later. If you want private e-mail, don't use the system other people are providing for you. Take it into your own hands and then you have screaming rights.

Even then, most ISPs (not all) will have something in their contracts about what you can and can't do on their systems, and you'd better believe they reserve the right to check those systems to ensure t'ain't funny business going on.

The rule in question is simple -- Freedom of Speech doesn't mean other people have to pay for your hall, and Privacy doesn't apply when you're keeping your private materials on someone else's property. My personal e-mail has mostly migrated to my own, personal, privately owned machine. That takes a court order to access. Do I have anything incriminating on there? Nope, but it's my stuff so I'll take care of it myself.

My access is still through the school, so if the school asks me to remove something or change something, I will. The information and machine are mine, but the route to the world is theirs. However, since I'm such a dull person to begin with, I'm not expecting any trouble.