Patriot Act haunts Google service

SIMON AVERY

From Monday’s Globe and Mail

March 24, 2008 at 4:05 AM EDT

Google Inc. is a year into its ground-shifting strategy to change the way people communicate and work.

But
the initiative to reinvent the way that people use software is running
headlong into another new phenomenon of the information technology age:
the unprecedented powers of security officials in the United States to
conduct surveillance on communications.
Eighteen
months ago, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., had an outdated
computer system that was crashing daily and in desperate need of an
overhaul. A new installation would have cost more than $1-million and
taken months to implement. Google’s service, however, took just 30 days
to set up, didn’t cost the university a penny and gave nearly 8,000
students and faculty leading-edge software, said Michael Pawlowski,
Lakehead’s vice-president of administration and finance.
U.S.-based
Google spotlighted the university as one of the first to adopt its
software model of the future, and today Mr. Pawlowski boasts the move
was the right thing for Lakehead, saving it hundreds of thousands of
dollars in annual operating costs. But he notes one trade-off: The
faculty was told not to transmit any private data over the system,
including student marks.
The
U.S. Patriot Act, passed in the weeks after the September, 2001,
terrorist attacks in the United States, gives authorities the means to
secretly view personal data held by U.S. organizations. It is at odds
with Canada’s privacy laws, which require organizations to protect
private information and inform individuals when their data has been
shared.
At
Lakehead, the deal with Google sparked a backlash. "The [university]
did this on the cheap. By getting this free from Google, they gave away
our rights," said Tom Puk, past president of Lakehead’s faculty
association, which filed a grievance against Lakehead administration
that’s still in arbitration.
Professors
say the Google deal broke terms of their collective agreement that
guarantees members the right to private communications. Mr. Puk says
teachers want an in-house system that doesn’t let third parties see
their e-mails.
Some
other organizations are banning Google’s innovative tools outright to
avoid the prospect of U.S. spooks combing through their data. Security
experts say many firms are only just starting to realize the risks they
assume by embracing Web-based collaborative tools hosted by a U.S.
company, a problem even more acute in Canada where federal privacy
rules are at odds with U.S. security measures.
"You
have to decide which law you are going to break," said Darren Meister,
associate professor of information systems at the Richard Ivey School
of Business, who specializes in how technology enhances organizational
effectiveness. "If I were a business manager, I would want to be very
careful about what kind of data I made accessible to U.S. law
enforcement."
Using their new powers under the Patriot Act,
U.S. intelligence officials can scan documents, pick out certain words
and create profiles of the authors – a frightening challenge to
academic freedom, Mr. Puk said.
For
instance, a Lakehead researcher with a Middle Eastern name, researching
anthrax or nuclear energy, might find himself denied entry to the
United States without ever knowing why. "You would have no idea what
they are up to with your information until, perhaps, it is too late,"
Mr. Puk said. "We don’t want to be subject to laws of the Patriot Act."

Google’s
free Web tools are advertising-based and they automatically extract
information from personal content to build a profile for advertisers.

Lakehead
professors also object to this feature, although Mr. Puk says Google
has refrained from attaching ads until the grievance is settled.
The
privacy issue goes far beyond academia. In Toronto, at SickKids
Foundation, which has the largest endowment of any Canadian hospital,
employees have been keen to use Google tools. But the foundation’s IT
department blocked access for two reasons.
"Wherever
possible, we keep our donor and patient records in Canada, as trying to
enforce privacy laws in other jurisdictions is complex and expensive,"
said Chris Woodill, director of IT and new media at SickKids
Foundation. Second, free hosted software offers limited support and no
formal legal contract, limiting an organization’s ability to demand
additional privacy or security measures, he said.
Google
says it has a strong track record in regard to protecting customers’
data. The firm cites a court case it fought in 2006 against attempts by
the U.S. Justice Department to subpoena customer search records. "We
will continue to be strong advocates on behalf of protecting our users’
data," said Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel.
But
the Mountain View, Calif.-based company will not discuss how often
government agencies demand access to its customers’ information or
whether content on its new Web-based collaborative tools has been the
subject of any reviews under the Patriot Act.
Montreal
security strategist Jeffrey Posluns says Google’s software suite may
suit some small businesses because cost savings are significant. But he
warns that the deciding factor should be the sensitivity of the
organization’s information.

Marie M. Buchanan, M.Ps.
Researcher, Webmaster, Pastor-Assistant, Translator, Blogger
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