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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Privacy concerns scrap Gmail pilot for faculty and staff

After two months of testing, UC Davis will end its Gmail trial for faculty and staff amidst worries about Google’s commitment to privacy.

The decision came in a joint letter that expressed disagreement on whether outsourcing e-mail would violate the UC Electronic Communications Policy cast doubt on the program.

The dispute centered on interpreting provisions that state the university cannot inspect or share sensitive electronic communications with third parties without individual consent.

“The concern that I have is that Google does some analysis of the individual data for indexing and for providing ads,” said Peter Siegel, vice provost of Information and Educational Technology.

Some faculty and staff expressed fear that private e-mail content used for advertisements could be compromised.

“We can’t in fact ensure the data is completely anonymized, that the data is not used or inadvertently sold to third party,” Siegel said.

While the decision will not end DavisMail, the Gmail system for undergraduate and graduate students, the latter may be reconsidered because of its role in research-related correspondence.

In their decision, the campus also considered the criticism Google has faced about its ability to protect user privacy. The company met controversy after its launch of Google Buzz, a social networking feature for Gmail, when users found the service had set up a list of contacts based on their e-mail and chat correspondence.

While Siegel felt that Google might have intended to act carefully, he said that he and others also took notice to what was seen as demonstrated global concern.

On April 19, privacy commissioners from 10 countries signed a letter criticizing Google for what they saw as inadequately considering the privacy rights of citizens.

“It is unacceptable to roll out a product that unilaterally renders personal information public, with the intention of repairing problems later as they arise,” the commissioners wrote. “Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world.”

On May 7, Google officials responded in a letter stating the company has tools and policies that ensure transparency and protection of privacy.

“Google is committed to ensuring that privacy is designed into our products at every stage of the development cycle,” wrote Jane Horvath and Peter Fleischer of Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, “Respecting privacy is part of every Googler’s job.”

Participants that are less concerned with the issue of privacy have said they understand the unease but will miss the service.

“I came away from the experience liking it as much as I thought I would,” said Bob Huckfeldt, a professor of political science, who indicated that he would integrate Gmail, “so I was disappointed that they aren’t going forward with it.”

Others also felt that the campus could have offered both Gmail and the campus e-mail and let faculty and staff decide.

“I think maybe there’s room for both ideas,” said Ken Gribble, a systems administrator for UC Davis Computer Science Department. “I think everybody would have to be educated to make those decisions about the risk. It really depends on their work. “

Because UC Davis will not consider outsourcing as an option, Siegel believes a new committee might look at strengthening the existing campus system or develop another system hosted on the campus itself.

LESLIE TSAN can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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