Privacy vs technology: UC Davis and Gmail conundrum
Elizabeth Stitt: Privacy versus tecnology on US campuses
18 May 10

A California university — in fact, my university — has decided to end a trial outsourcing outsourcing its staff and faculty emails to Google’s Gmail, citing privacy as their primary concern. Officials at the University of California-Davis released an internal statement on 30 April saying they did not believe Google exhibits the dedication needed to retain the privacy of their users, and declared an end to the 8-week trial with the company.

The statement said:

Although preliminary feedback from volunteer testers was positive, many other faculty expressed concern that our campus’ commitment to protecting the privacy of their communications is not demonstrated by Google and that the appropriate safeguards are neither in place at this time nor planned for the near future.

The announcement also made reference to a letter released by privacy commissioners in 10 countries the week before, criticising the Google’s lack of concern regarding privacy involving Google Buzz and Street View. The letter claims Google “violated the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control the use of their personal information”.

Peter Siegel, the university’s chief information officer, said the faculty were concerned that sensitive research could leaked.

In an interview with the education and technology magazine Converge, Siegel said, “We really want what Google promises to the community to be consistent with what they state in writing. So I think there was a sense that, well, it doesn’t really say clearly that they’re going to protect this information the way we need it to be protected.”

This decision doesn’t directly affect people like me — undergraduate and graduate students will continue to use DavisMail, the Gmail system for the university, until further notice. After living through my first year with our old, slow and problem-riddled GeckoMail, the UC Davis-made email system, I’m relieved I’ll still have my Gmail account.

I can, however, understand why our professors and researchers would need more privacy. Many of them work on confidential projects. Their work could be jeopardised if hackers gained access their information.

UC Davis isn’t the only American university to express concerns. Yale University delayed its switch to Gmail in March because of worries revolving around “cloud computing”— information transferring between virtual servers — technological risks and ideological concerns. Yale computer science professor, Michael Fischer, said one reason they stalled the project was the fear of losing control of their data.

I’m torn between privacy and a working email account. In more than a few classes, professors and classmates have been able to share information with me via Google Docs and Calendar, making my life easier.

The university is currently looking at creating a new host system or strengthening their existing one, and if it’s anything like GeckoMail, this could hinder researchers’ ability to store email and information they need in the future. At this point, UC Davis students need to ask if we need 100 per cent privacy or mediocre technology.

Elizabeth Stitt Elizabeth attends the University of California-Davis, studying international relations and political science