At this moment, you are being followed. Don’t turn around. Don’t look up. They know that you will. You’ve told them as much.
It started with an email. “Dear Dr. InsertYourNameHere, it typically read from a person unsure of themselves and uncomfortable enough to say ‘Hey’, “I hope this email finds you well for at the other end, this is not the case. I’m sorry that I was late sending…” and on and on it droned.
It was a private moment of vulnerability, a rare occurrence where your cry for help was necessary. Sending it embarrassed you. You tried to balance the gravity and the gobbledygook. Hours were spent on the word choice. You clicked backspace more than you typed.
And yet moment you sent the email, this instance of uncertainty became public property. Your gift of gab was assessed, your words were analyzed, and you were constructed in a compartment of ones and zeros. From a complex person with insecurities and idiosyncrasies, who hated Tuesdays, who wondered if other people’s belly buttons hurt to touch as much as yours did, you were reduced to an electronic profile.
Online on Feb. 4, I showed that this personal exposure was an inevitability of the National Security Agency (NSA) current surveillance apparatus. At the same time, however, I criticized the policy, the legal framework and the mandate that have made it so. Though this seems naively lofty for a student newspaper to do – perhaps like trying to fart in an opposing wind – know that such conceptual complexity cannot be a scapegoat for the issue is not restricted only to greater minds. Not does it just concern the international climate. Instead this dragnet surveillance is a blanket over us here at McMaster most of all.
Because more than anything, we have become complacent gears in its well-oiled machine.
Check your email and you’ll find proof: a scatter shot of bureaucracy and the clumsy fingerprints of legality. Before signing in, we’re led through the labyrinth of law lingo. It starts, “McMaster is committed to respecting the privacy of its students’ personal information.”
But this ‘respect’, as it is loosely defined, fades away as the text rolls on. The “Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act” and the terms of Google Inc. are cited as our expectations of privacy, which is a nice way of saying there is none at all.
Listen: the former legal document states we have a right to privacy, but this fundamental allowance is at the institution’s discretion. And the latter term is where such full-blown helter-skelter madness precipitates. Forget the discussions of backdoor access to companies in the United States, the recent revelations of cloud collecting by the NSA, or the leaks that have pointed towards encryption breaking. Instead focus on the implications of providing our information to a third party. By allowing our email to become an electronic export, rather than handling it internally, we no longer have management of it. It veers off to another land. It escapes our reach. And as a result, our privacy becomes illusionary.
Richard Godsmark, the Senior Manager of Security, Technology and Risk at UTS, stated similarly, “Privacy should not be assumed with email as it cannot be considered a secure communication medium… When you send something by email, you lose direct control of it.”
This is surprising not because it is necessarily unexpected but because we have been led to believe otherwise. Our emails are secure under McMaster. We have the juggernauts of Google protecting us against the onslaught of cyber threats. Countless SRA stated that the highest standard of privacy was ensured in the Gmail service. And the conditions we agree to each time we sign in “use all reasonable efforts to provide the user with a safe and secure email system.”
But this language is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Our McMaster email is found in the hands of someone who sits behind a bigger desk. Our security is found only in knowing how insecure our email is against prying eyes. And our agreement is not a statement of privacy.
It is a statement that we have no privacy at all.
If the NSA fallout has suggested anything, no reassurance that we can be given is steadfast. This is true for McMaster and Google. Granted that Google often defends the privacy of its customers in court, there is no direct evidence that Google has acted outside the bounds of its terms, and this is exactly the problem; there is no guarantee of the protection of information. Instead as the Edward Snowden leaks have suggested, the reverse seems true.
Yet even if this is the case and even if we don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, isn’t our privacy a reasonable thing to ask for? Are we not right in assuming we agreeing to exactly what we believe we are agreeing to, without cause to worry else wise?
Though it seems like ancient times when days were scrawled away on tablets of stone, not Ipads, this was the standard three years ago. Back then McMaster was connected with the MUSS system, which was strictly McMaster run.
With warranted frustration due to unreliability and limited capacity, however, a previous MSU president, Matthew Dillon-Leitch along with Huzaifa Saeed, the then SRA Commissioner of External Affairs, pushed for a new email service.
Taking student input over different service providers, Gmail was chosen and later implemented.
Nowadays Gmail is the sole choice, not the alternative. There is no internal regulation, no other provider offered. Instead we come to McMaster, we use its email service, and yet it is not ours in the slightest. We may be private in it, but in it nothing is private.
Perhaps this is inevitable, and perhaps we cannot do anything about it. I’m not sure. But if our standard for privacy is to be so low that we have none at all, then I believe that venues of communication must be reinstated. We must understand that we do not have any expectation that our emails are our own. We must be told the limits of our model.
Otherwise, who knows? We might write to Dr. InsertYourNameHere that our computer blew up, our homework was lost as a result, and when we are trying to sleep in our bed feeling groggy from the electronic fubar, Black Ops might give us a little visit to ensure that everything is okay.
It sounds dramatic but then again, so does this: “respecting the privacy of its students’ personal information” when this is impossible. With no privacy to respect, at best this statement is useless handwaving; at worst, it is an outright lie.
Dear McMaster emailing system,
I am a second-year Commerce student who recently transferred from another University. And ever since I started off here, there has been one thing I haven’t been able to ignore. I have received over 70 emails from McMaster. Within one month.
Now, I do not want to be misunderstood as someone who isn’t technologically savvy and not embracing the culture of electronic communication, trust me, I am. However, when does it become too much information?
Have you ever heard of the “use it or lose it” phenomenon? It means that even if our brains have an astonishing storage capacity of one million gigabytes (yes, it has been researched), if we deem the information not to be relevant or meaningful, chances are we are not going to remember it. The fundamental fact here is that many students disregard a significant proportion of emails from this school. It’s a little sad, but extremely true.
Before I continue, I must propose a solution. To stop this annoying bombardment of information, each faculty, discipline or club should summarize their information, reminders and invitations into weekly emails, or even bi-weekly emails. That’s it, no more.
One may say that sending an email once a week may cause students to forget the information the email was relating to them. And although that is in fact a valid criticism, it is ultimately up to the receiver of such information to determine what is imperative knowledge and potentially beneficial.
For instance, an email received from International Student Services about Welcome Week activities may be quite valuable to a first year student who wants to actively participate in campus events and become fully acquainted with their new McMaster experience.
However, another first year may just want to settle in quietly without taking part in all the seemingly ‘fun’ activities. This does not mean that sending the same Welcome Week email six times in two to three days will convince the latter student to engage.
After saying all of this, I hope that someone in a key position to make a change in the volume of emails we are forced to encounter reads this article and comprehends its main idea.
We all have a quest for knowledge and information, but please McMaster, enough is enough. Lay off the emails … at least just a little.
Spam filter’s No. 1 fan