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/ March 4, 2014
Protecting Students’ Data On Google’s Apps For Education

“It’s important to note that your administrator or service provider has access to any data you store in this account, including your email.”

The clear sentence sits on help pages on privacy and security. Since 2011, NYU email accounts have been run through Google Apps for education, a program that stores students’ emails, calendars, and documents. Google can hand any data from these student accounts over to universities utilizing the program, but NYU’s Information Technology department holds a strong ethos for protecting student privacy.

According to Marilyn McMillan, NYU’s Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Technology Officer, the school doesn’t access data stored in student or faculty accounts except in special circumstances. “We have a practice of not doing that unless we’re directed to do something specific by the office of legal counsel or by somebody in authority.”The data stays on Google’s servers, and ITS is “very rarely” directed to access it. McMillan could not recall an instance where the content of a student’s email account was accessed as part of a disciplinary procedure. A more typical decision to access student data might be in response to a familial request of a student who has died.

“We’re not looking at content of either what people are entering into their email or into other stuff that they may be doing in Google Apps,” McMillan said.

Students and faculty at Harvard University had a similar expectation of privacy until the school was shaken by an email scandal last year. The Boston Globe reported that university administrators had searched the email accounts of sixteen resident deans, looking to find who had leaked information about a well-publicized cheating scandal. Only one dean was notified that administrators had searched his email. The University switched its email system to Apps for Education in 2011.

Yet, the transition to Google Apps for Education didn’t impact the NYU’s ability to access students’ data, according to Ira Rubinstein, an NYU Law Professor who’s written on Google privacy issues. “The university has access to student email and data regardless of whether Google manages the accounts,” he said. “It has such access when it managed the infrastructure and has it now that Google performs that task.”

Six years after Arizona State University became the first university to use the tool in 2006, seventy-two of U.S. News’ ranking of the top one hundred universities used Apps for Education. Each university has its own policy on using Google to access student data. While universities that maintain their own email systems may also choose to access student data, Google’s reign on American campuses gives the company’s policies a large role in safeguarding students’ data.

Google’s Press Team would not comment for this piece and directed questions to the university.

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