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Harvard email scandal shows need for protection from unwarranted government intrusion

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  March 11, 2013 03:04 PM

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ACLU of Massachusetts legislative counsel Gavi Wolfe and Technology for Liberty project director Kade Crockford wrote this guest blog.

So, Harvard searched through its deans' emails to find out who leaked information about the big cheating scandal. Yikes!

In defense of this bold intrusion, they say they didn't read the content of any emails, just the headers. But that's the same approach the FBI takes under the much maligned and perversely named USA Patriot Act.

The FBI says that an email subject line is part of the "header" on the message, so it's fair game to gobble up subject lines without providing any proof that someone may be involved in criminal activity. But that logic throws the analogy to postal mail--for privacy purposes, distinguishing between the "contents" and the "envelope"--out the window.

The Harvard scandal is a case in point. The subject line divulged exactly the content they were looking for.

You may not care that Harvard violated the privacy of 16 deans, but it isn't only our work email that is exposed to suspicion-less surveillance. And we should all be worried about law enforcement trolling our email without any good reason.

Thank you, Harvard, for yet again exemplifying the best the academic world has to offer--generating insights into arcana that occasionally illuminate the world in which we live. The culture of surveillance in the United States is broad and deep.

Luckily, it isn't too late to protect ourselves from unwarranted government intrusions into our email inboxes. We can and must reform the law to require law enforcement to articulate a good reason--probable cause of criminal activity--for why they should have access to records of our phone and internet use.

In Massachusetts, a bill filed by state Senator Karen Spilka and Representative Marty Walz would do just that. Don't want your emails under the microscope? Urge your state senator and state representative to pass the Electronic Privacy Act today.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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