Ryerson University could soon join the growing number of universities across the continent to farm out email services to a private company as a way to improve service and cut costs, a move that has raised privacy and security concerns.
If approved, Ryerson’s in-house computing service — including email — will be transferred to the Google Apps Education Edition system as early as fall 2012.
The switchover will provide faculty and students with a “richer, more robust, more secure system” with more storage space and interactive research tools, said Julia Hanigsberg, vice-president of administration and finance, adding that the existing system “has not been able to keep up.”
Hanigsberg said Ryerson staff began to consider the potential switchover last year and launched the advisory committee on academic computing to explore the university’s options. She hopes to receive feedback from the committee before Christmas.
Lakehead University became the first Canadian university in 2006 to switch its email and computing service over to a private company — Google Apps Education Edition — a move that stirred privacy concerns.
Lakehead’s faculty union, backed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, filed a grievance with the university in 2006, stating that Gmail system failed to protect their privacy and academic freedom.
Since Google is an American company and subject to American law, the university would not be able to protect email content from the U.S. government. Under the U.S. Patriot Act, the government could compel Google to provide data without informing the university.
Labour arbitrator Joseph Carrier dismissed the claim in 2009 for a number of reasons, including that the collective agreement did not guarantee absolute privacy.
“While I am sympathetic to their plight and the fact that big brother could be watching over their email communications ... One should consider email communications as confidential as are postcards,” Carrier said.
University of Victoria privacy expert Colin Bennett called it a “chilling effect” — where faculty and students censor their communications because they worry email content and research work is not secure or being monitored.
“It’s more of a perception, than an actual fear. It does have an effect on academic freedom,” Bennett added.
Hanigsberg said Ryerson faculty or students who are hesitant in switching their email accounts to Gmail will be given the option of keeping their Ryerson accounts.
But “for the majority of people, it’s a bit of a no-brainer,” she said, noting Gmail’s popularity among staff and students.
Hanigsberg added that the committee found privacy risks associated with using Google apps for education in Canada to be “very minor.”
“It’s hard for me to see the downside,” she said. “We just can’t compete with Google or Microsoft,” she said.