Reining in e-mail searches at Harvard

Harvard University’s search of 14,000 e-mail accounts in response to a cheating scandal in 2012 revealed glaring weaknesses in its policies for accessing students’ and employees’ information. After the search became public, Harvard president Drew Faust convened a task force of administrators and faculty members, whose recommendations were published Feb. 26. Even though the task force’s proposals are non-binding, the university should adopt them.

Almost every employer reserves the right to search e-mails sent on company accounts. But Harvard didn’t have an organization-wide policy on when it is appropriate to read an individual’s e-mail or whether that individual should be notified. To rectify this, the task force proposed that, in the vast majority of instances, all people with Harvard accounts should be notified “in a timely manner” if their e-mails are being searched. An exception would be made if there were a subpoena or other legal reason to avoid disclosure. Moreover, searches should be authorized by a dean or a head of a school, and meticulous records kept. Searches would then be subject to periodic review by an independent oversight committee.

When the task force presents its recommendations to Faust after the comment period ends next week, she should accept them. Students, administrators, and faculty members at Harvard — and other universities — need to know that their privacy will be respected.