Opinion » Column | Sept. 22
The summer before freshman year, I was excited to receive my email address and see my name placed beside the email subdomain “@princeton.edu”: a confirmation that my acceptance wasn’t some mistake by the Office of Admission. Amid the anticipation and the news of Princeton going Google, the thought of my privacy ever being at risk was never a concern.
However, in the age of protest over drones and the NSA, the issue of privacy has come to the forefront. Although it has been discussed before by opinion columnist Catherine Rampell ’07 in 2006, maybe now, more than ever, we should take the time to brush the dust off the handbooks given to us freshman year and review Princeton’s stance on its students’ privacy.
According to the University’s IT policy, the University is allowed “under certain circumstances to access, restrict, monitor and regulate the systems that support and contain [all contents in storage on data and voice systems]” and also “reserves the right to access and copy files and documents (including e-mail and voicemail) residing on University-owned equipment. This includes access without notice, where warranted.”
The school’s email client, Google, has a stance on privacy that also raises some eyebrows. This summer in a federal case over the automated processing of emails from Gmail, Google cited Smith v. Maryland (1976) to justify its ability to look at users’ data, stating “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”
While the school’s IT policy highlights that students are normally “afforded a high degree of privacy” with regard to the school’s technology, it fails to mention what these “certain circumstances” are, and more importantly, who would be allowed to invade your privacy if such circumstances were met.
Privacy has historically been a tricky subject. It technically isn’t even explicitly mentioned in our own Constitution — and wasn’t recognized as a constitutional right until the 1960s contraceptive case Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Court claimed that various amendments created penumbras that formed “zones of privacy.” Added to the fact that the Founding Fathers had no way of conceiving of cell phones, cars and Internet, the problem of privacy becomes a whole lot trickier.
For example, in Olmstead v. United States — a Supreme Court case dealing with the constitutionality of phone-wire tapping in the 1920s — the Court, applying a more literal view of privacy, argued that since telephone wires were not part of a person’s house, telephone conversations were not protected by the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause.
Although the decision was overturned by Katz v. United States (1967), it reflects a past difficulty of grasping privacy in light of new technological innovations.
More notably, in one of Olmstead’s dissents, Justice Brandeis argued the Court took the wrong approach with its decision. He believed that “government is potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
That’s not to say that I believe Princeton is breaking any laws, nor am I accusing it of inciting anarchy. Princeton University is not the United States federal government. That being said, Brandeis still brings up an excellent point.
In defense of Google’s stance towards privacy, Eric Schmidt ’76, Google CEO, argued that “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” This is the wrong approach. The burden of protecting our privacy should not rest on the students, as Eric Schmidt and Catherine Rampell suggest. Rather, it should rest on those who set the policy.
Benjamin Dinovelli is a sophomore from Mystic, Conn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.