On an average day, about 100,000 emails are sent and received on Albion College’s network. Eight million Google Drive files have been stored on the network by around 10,000 users. Approximately 6000 gigabytes of shared information is managed, and individual instances of online activity number in the tens of thousands. Albion College’s IT department can see it all.
According to Albion’s student handbook, the college has the ability to access all search histories, downloads, emails and Albion Google accounts on their network. This means that Albion has the ability to see everything that a student searches online, even under private browsing options, like Google Chrome’s “incognito” window.
“Generally speaking, colleges have a great deal of authority to police their own IT, including their email systems and desktop computers, so when you are using college property to communicate a message, you have a diminished expectation of privacy,” said Frank LoMonte, the executive director of Student Press Law Center. His agency provides legal assistance for student journalists on their First Amendment rights.
As a private college, Fourth Amendment rights protecting citizens from unreasonable search and seizure can be overridden, said LoMonte. If inclined, a college like Albion could access what would normally be considered a student’s private internet use, so long as the college’s IT department is not on a “personal snooping expedition.”
Michael Dever, chief information officer, and Eric Beadle, director of systems and networking, assure that Albion’s IT does not have the time, staff size or the inclination to actively monitor the thousands of site clicks and email deliveries that go through their system each day.
“It’s like a security camera,” said Dever. “The camera’s on, watching, but no one’s sitting there and actively watching that camera.”
Dever and his team are more concerned about the maintenance of Albion’s systems than they are about what students on campus are looking up and downloading–in fact, they often clear their logs after 24 hours. What does concern IT are when these actions break laws, go against college policies or jeopardize the system. Even in these cases, though, IT is more reactive than proactive.
“The way we think of it is that we’re detectives, so the crime has been committed and we’re the detectives to find out who did the crime,” said Dever.
The student handbook’s acceptable use policy prohibits internet activity that goes against state or federal laws, like computer fraud or illegally streaming movies. It also prohibits activities that threaten the integrity of the network, the mission of the College or the safety of others. These can include gaining access to restricted resources, damaging campus devices or attempting to disrupt the system’s functionality. If the acceptable use policy is knowingly violated, IT will step in.
IT will sometimes stumble across illegal activity when a problem occurs in their system and they sift through the day’s information to find the cause. Most of the time, however, they receive notifications of the activities from parties outside of their network.
For instance, if a student is watching TV show episodes from an illegal downloading site like Moviepopcorn, IT may get a takedown notice courtesy of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA allows copyright holders to assert their rights if their content is posted without permission on sites. If a holder sees their content (in the case of the example, an episode of their show), they can will out a notice to either the site or the ISP using their content and demand it be removed before legal action is taken.
According to Dever, copyright is the law students break the most, and it is from the DMCA and other “copyright cops” where they receive the most information about violations by students.
If a student is caught disregarding the Albion’s acceptable use policies, they are sent over to Beadle, who implements a three strike policy, as outlined in the student handbook. First, Beadle will discuss the problem with student, asking them to take care of the situation personally. Second, he will take the student’s device for a day for to ensure the violation is removed from the computer. If the student is still breaking the acceptable use policy, they will be referred to the student judicial process for punishment. Beadle has yet to go past the first strike.
There are some laws that private colleges like Albion must follow, despite their bypassing of the Fourth Amendment. By Michigan law, an educational institution cannot ask for access to a student’s or prospective student’s personal internet accounts, such as Facebook or Snapchat, and cannot penalize individuals for refusing to grant access to these sites. Under FERPA, a college is also able to release only limited information about its students to the general public.
For a full description of Albion’s acceptable use policy, please refer to the student handbook.
Photo by Beau Brockett Jr.