Windows without Curtains: Computer Privacy and Academic Freedom

By McCaughey, Martha | Academe, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Windows without Curtains: Computer Privacy and Academic Freedom


McCaughey, Martha, Academe


A professor discovers the intricacies of electronic property rights when her computer becomes part of a police investigation.

What rights do faculty have to work stored on a university's hard drive?

My friend caught her husband cheating. He used a car phone (it was the eighties). She had the car phone bill, which listed all the numbers he'd dialed, and one he'd dialed frequently enough to arouse her suspicion. So she called her local pizza shop, knowing they kept track of pizza deliveries by using the customer's phone number. She simply stated the suspicious phone number, in response to which the pizza guy confirmed the name and address-Hillary Homebreaker on 123 Deception Drive-where she then drove and made the bust. I celebrated the wife's ability to use computerized information systems to her advantage. Of course, the now ex-husband undoubtedly regrets the ease with which such information could be obtained. I have since learned a little more about life's technological regrets.

I'd always used information technology to my advantage. I've made a Freedom of Information Act request. I've created a Web page so that I could post a piece of criticism that my university's newspaper refused to print. I skated on the smooth side of the computer-age-old tension between the good and the bad uses of information technology. But when armed police officers confiscated and searched the computer from my state university office, without a warrant, I began to cross-examine my relationship to computers and investigate professors' computer privacy at public universities.

Space limitations prevent me from providing all the particulars of "Computergate," as the case came to be known locally, but here's the upshot: you could find yourself in the same position that I did. I had violated no university policy. I simply received an anonymous e-mail (an e-mail with a "from" line that read "Anonymous User" and an address of ). The e-mail was the "manifesto" of a group claiming responsibility for having spray-painted antirape graffiti on the campus the day prior. The brief message defended the group's act of property defacement as politically necessary given the problem of rape. The manifesto indicated no future action or plans to deface more property or hurt people.

Because I directed the women's studies program, and such current events get discussed in our classes, I forwarded the message (with an explanatory preface) to my colleagues on our women's studies Listserv. I also forwarded to my colleagues a critique of graffiti as a form of activism, written by one of my students. The e-mail manifesto said that I was one of several people being sent the manifesto because I was perceived by the senders to be sympathetic to their cause. But I neither claimed nor denied any sympathy for their manifesto or form of protest. Nevertheless, I became virtual collateral damage.

In forwarding the e-mail to my colleagues, I attracted the attention of the campus police, who wanted the message to trace its origin and catch the senders/vandals. They called to ask me for it, and I offered to forward it to them. They explained that a forwarded copy would not be traceable to the original sender. I'd only kept a forwarded copy, however (the one I received from myself when I sent the message to the Listserv). I didn't know who else had received the e-mail (I have since learned that at least twenty people on campus received it), but I figured the police would check around and get a copy of it from a recipient who hadn't yet deleted it. But that isn't what happened.

Some days later, a campus detective called, asking for my entire computer to perform an e-mail recovery operation. I said he did not have my permission to take my entire computer and that I was about to leave town to see my father, who'd become critically ill. The day I returned, I found two police officers at my campus office to confiscate my computer. …

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