Diary

UH Goes Gmail

The University of Hawaii’s move to outsource campus email to Google has raised concerns about privacy and process.

“If you’re going to outsource email, then Google is the absolute worst choice you could make,” says Windward Community College student Robert Fread, citing the Federal Trade Commission’s recent investigation into the company’s data harvesting practices. Fread has filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education, saying, “They’re [UH] absolutely ignoring Google’s abysmal record with privacy.”

UH Information Technology Services specialist Osamu Makiguchi counters that thousands of schools across the nation already have opted to outsource email, and most of them have selected Google Education Apps, a free service that has the potential to save UH “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Makiguchi wrote in an email.

But mathematics professor David Ross, who chaired both the UH-Manoa Faculty Senate and the All-Campus Council of Faculty Chairs when the shift to Gmail was first proposed, says some instructors have questioned what’s in it for Google. In the private sector, Ross says, the company’s email revenue comes from data mining and advertising. Fread worries that Google will not keep academic records secure or be able to resist the temptation to mine email for useful marketing information.

Makiguchi responded that the UH contract prohibits Google from contacting users or sharing their email addresses for advertising purposes. It allows the university to “turn off web advertisements in the Gmail web interface,” he wrote.

With regard to concerns about data mining, “Google is very clear regarding its scanning/indexing of user data such as email. Email is scanned to perform spam filtering and virus detection and to support lightning-fast user searching of their own email contents. These procedures are 100 [percent] automated and involve no human interaction,” Makiguchi added.

Fread further objects to Google being named a “school official” in the contract, a designation that he says gives the company access to student records. But Makiguchi wrote that the “school official” language is standard in all email outsourcing agreements and the contract “does not allow the company access to any student information or university data stored on UH systems.”

While some faculty concerns were addressed in the contract, such as storing data in countries with strict security provisions, Ross adds that one of his main concerns involves process. Faculty were first consulted in April 2010, and the contract with Google was signed just two months later. “The notion of meaningful consultation means people are involved in the process while the process is still being determined,” Ross says.

Other faculty were concerned about the large company being a target of cyber-attacks and more likely to be either barred from repressive nations or subject to governmental demands to release data.

Makiguchi, however, says thousands of UH users already were forwarding their email to Google “in order to overcome the limitations of the aging UH legacy email system.”

Email migration is expected to be complete by July.