Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2007

Email Outsourcing Threatens Privacy & Academic Freedom

Dangerous Fault Lines — Lakehead’s deal with the online giant Google raises privacy objections. [Photo: Lakehead University]
Dangerous Fault Lines — Lakehead’s deal with the online giant Google raises privacy objections. [Photo: Lakehead University]
Lakehead University has signed an outsourcing contract with Google to run e-mail services for faculty, staff and students at the university. Initially offered at little or no cost to the university, the new arrangement has raised serious concern about loss of privacy and threats to academic freedom.

“The Lakehead University Faculty Association has filed a grievance against the university, alleging that outsourcing e-mail service to Google fails to protect faculty rights to privacy in personal and professional communication and fails to protect our academic freedom as outlined in our collective agreement,” said association president Tom Puk. The case was referred to arbitration, with the first day of hearing held earlier this month.

Puk said LUFA asked CAUT lawyers to handle the case because of its seriousness for LUFA members and because of the implications for faculty across Canada if other universities and colleges follow Lakehead’s example.

In order to access their e-mail accounts, Lakehead faculty, staff and students must first accept the university’s “terms of service” that specify the conditions under which the university may access and disclose the contents their electronic mail without their consent. Among other conditions, the university requires users to agree that the university can read and disclose the contents of e-mail “when the university believes it has a legitimate business need including, but not limited to” investigating misconduct or misuse of email, promoting health and safety or “to prevent interference with the academic mission (of the University).”

Puk noted that in addition to the university’s terms, all users of Lakehead’s new e-mail system must also accept Google’s “terms of use,” which specify that “Google may monitor, edit or disclose your personal information, including the content of your e-mails, if required to do so in order to comply with any valid legal process or governmental request.”

“As Google is a U.S. corporation, all records to which it has access could be demanded under USA Patriot Act investigations, and Google is prohibited by law to tell anyone if records have been requested,” said James Turk, executive director of CAUT. “With arrangements to share information between Canadian and American intelligence agencies, Canadian agencies would be able to obtain from their U.S. counterparts e-mails and records they could not legally obtain in Canada.”

Google’s terms and conditions also stipulate that “personal information collected by Google may be stored in the United States or any other country in which Google Inc. or its agents maintain facilities … (and that) you consent to any such transfer of information outside of your country.”

Further, “Google may at any time and for any reason terminate the Services, terminate this Agreement, or suspend or terminate your account” and, in such an event, “you may not be granted access to your account or any files or other content contained in your account although residual copies of information may remain in our system.”

In addition, should any user consider challenging Google’s actions, their only recourse is spelled out in the company’s terms: “Any claims, legal proceeding or litigation arising in connection with the Service will be brought solely in Santa Clara County, California, and you consent to the jurisdiction of such courts.”

“Given the university’s and Google’s policies, how can academic staff feel free to communicate on sensitive subjects in their scholarly work?” Turk asks, noting academic freedom would be undermined under such conditions “as they can easily chill the openness necessary for scholarly interchanges between colleagues and with students.”