Monday, March 28, 2011


Snooping Email

From the “just when you think it couldn’t get more ridiculous” files...

The leadership of the Republican party in Wisconsin has filed a Freedom of Information request to read all of the emails from the account of Professor William Cronon, a well-known historian and union activist at the University of Wisconsin. They’ve specifically asked for emails containing terms that would suggest relevance to union and/or political activity.

Technically, the request is legal. Emails at public institutions are considered public documents; that’s why I have a gmail account for my “dean dad” stuff, and another gmail account for things like Amazon purchases. Those of us in administrative positions are routinely advised that college emails can be subpoenaed, and that anything we write could later be used in court. That said, though, you’d have to be a special kind of stupid not to see that this request is an attempt to intimidate university employees. (Notably, tenure offers no special protection against this kind of snooping.)

The contrast to the rights of employees at private institutions is striking. The legal bar to clear for such a fishing expedition would be dramatically higher.

Already, public employees’ salaries and benefits either barely match or trail those of employees in similar jobs in the private sector. And that isn’t because of the profit motive, since most ‘private’ higher ed in America is still non-profit. (In my observation, the for-profits actually pay less than even community colleges for similar work. And by ‘observation,’ I mean ‘direct personal experience.’) The highest pay is reserved for the private nonprofits, though I don’t remember anyone ever raising that issue for a policy debate.

In the age of ‘gotcha’ articles that sink candidacies based on quoting controversial people, the idea of fishing expeditions in emails is particularly chilling. A single email, taken out of context, could be used to prove just about anything. (That’s especially true when others’ emails haven’t been searched, so there’s no sense of an average.) I have to assume that ‘chilling’ is precisely the point.

As bad as the Wisconsin kill-the-unions initiative is, this is actually worse. Unions are one vehicle for expressing concerns; this goes directly to expressing concerns at all. And it fails the most basic test of ethics, which is reciprocity. If the Republican party can read my emails at will, then I should be able to read theirs at will. Fair is fair. If public sector employees are subject to random harassment by anyone with a bat in his belfry, then so should private sector employees. Fair is fair. Let’s go fishing through the emails of, say, the Koch brothers, and scan them for terms related to matters of public interest. While we’re at it, let’s check the leadership of Goldman Sachs, GE, and the University of Phoenix. Fair is fair.

Or, we could be grownups and admit that this is the equivalent of wiretapping, and demand to see a warrant. That’s what the Koch brothers would do if this were applied to them.

Other than naked power, what underlies this is an abiding contempt for public work generally. To argue that public sector workers should have lower salaries than their counterparts in the private sector -- with the same qualifications and the same job descriptions -- can only make sense if you believe that the public sector shouldn’t exist in the first place. Otherwise, you are simply holding that government employees should be the least qualified, least capable people you can find. The only reason I can imagine saying that would be complete indifference to the quality of their work, and presumably to the very existence of it.

I can imagine an intelligent argument for effective public higher education. I can also imagine an intelligent argument for the abolition of public higher education altogether -- it’s certainly not my preference, but there’s an argument to be made. What I simply cannot imagine is an intelligent argument for poorly-done public higher education. If you’re going to have it, you should make realistic efforts to assure quality. Every time Wisconsin attacks its employees, it drives away the ones with options and leaves itself with those nobody else wants. Already, I’ve heard anecdotal reports of candidates for jobs there simply walking away, making the entirely reasonable decision that they don’t want to board a sinking ship. Stripping them of unions is bad enough; subjecting them to random politically-motivated fishing expeditions in everything they’ve ever written is something else altogether.

Nobody who actually wanted an effective public sector would do this. This is pure slash-and-burn, but without the guts to say so.

I wish the recall effort well.

No, destroying the unions is worse, because without a union, nobody has any recourse when this sort of hideousness happens.
It might be even worse. Using a private email account on your work computer may result in your private email account activity being cached and recoverable. I think if one is concerned about privacy, one should not do any personal stuff (oh, like this?) on one's work computer. And if one is really paranoid, not being conencted to the internet may be better yet. (I occasionally run across cached copies of things I posted on internal listservs years ago...)

And I too have nothing but good to say about the recall efforts in Wisconsin. And send money.
I have to disagree with your reciprocity argument. In the private sector, employers have the right to search their employees' (business-related) emails, but employees have no right to read their boss' email. Public sector employees are employed by The People. If I believe an elected or appointed official is abusing their office, I want the ability to examine official records for evidence of that abuse. If I believe the administration at my local CC is purposefully making life difficult for pro-labor employees or religiously-themed student groups, I want to be able to examine university records (including emails) pertaining to those issues.

That said, clearly the situation in WI is a witch hunt and an abuse of the intention of the FoIA. If anything "incriminating" is found in Cronon's email, it will certainly be taken out of context for political purposes. But what legal alternative do your purpose? Only "reasonable" requests for information will be granted? "Reasonable" according to whom? And while I would personally love to read the contents of the Koch brothers' email, I certainly don't like the idea of violating the privacy of all Americans. As much as I hate that the GOP can legally read the contents of Cronon's work email, I sure as hell don't want to give them the right to read his private email as well.
You're right about the for-profits. I work three jobs and the lowest-paying of them is the for-profit.

The things to remember are that anything you post or send in cyberspace is recoverable, and anything you communicate in a work environment is potentially legal evidence for whatever someone with enough money or legal power on his or her side wants. I emphasize both of those points when I teach a business writing class.
I don't know who is advising the Republican legislators in Wisconsin, but they don't seem to realize that their 'take-no-prisoners', scorched-Earth tactics will catastrophically backfire on them. This last one, using the Freedom of Information Act to target one individual who is a leader in a faculty union, is just another example. Any tactical advantage that is gained from excerpting a few 'incriminating' emails will be more than lost in the Court of Public Opinion, as Wisconsin citizens watch the allegedly, "Party of Small Government" trample on the rights and lives of public employees.
Background: At my SoCal cc, voters approved a $380M bond issue for new construction. Soon afterwards, the hanky-panky began and people began to ask questions. How did the bidding process work? Why did the winners of the bids hire a $100K/year PR consultant to massage public opinion? One of the PR goals was (and I'm not making this up) was to "isolate extremists." These same construction companies contributed tens of thousands of dollars to support the incumbent BoT candidates who approved their bids in the first place.

Because of the California Public Records Act, we were able to find out about all this. We also discovered that our VP for Finance hosted a campaign fund-raiser to support incumbent BoT candidates. At this fund-raiser, the VP won a raffle for a wine-tasting and golf trip to Napa County. It was paid for by a construction company, which, one month later, was awarded a $4M contract--approved by the same VP for Finance.

Here's the twist: As folks dig deeper to find out more, there's less and less information available through the school email accounts. It may be that to keep shady dealings in the dark, people are using their private email accounts to do school business. Without some really strong evidence for a search warrant, private email accounts remain private.

So how does the public resolve this dilemma? Would a BoT policy requiring that all school-related business take place through the school email help? How can we insure that public business is done out in the open?

As Dean Dad says, wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

It's the FOIA. It's supposed to be political.

Left wingers use it to dig for dirt on right wingers. And (surprise!) the reverse also happens. It just doesn't happen very much.

Did he send emails which he wished he had not sent? Perhaps. But am I willing to give up the right to use FOIA against someone else, just to protect this certain academic? No--and you shouldn't, either.

I serve in a very minor elected office. Everything I do is subject to the FOIA. It's a pain in the ass. But it's what the FOIA is for.
Also, as to this:
To argue that public sector workers should have lower salaries than their counterparts in the private sector -- with the same qualifications and the same job descriptions -- can only make sense if you believe that the public sector shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Well, no. That's a facile argument.

One OTHER way that it can make sense--which most people refer to--is if the public sector provides other benefits than pay, which somehow compensate for any pay differential. Excellent examples might be working conditions, raises, ability to get fired (or not,*) social benefits, etc.

It's convenient to ignore those factors. But it's not a match for reality.

*Seriously. This is one of the most undervalued things about government work.
I'm not sure what Dean Dad means by referring to Bill Cronon as a "union activist," but that reference most certainly does NOT meant that he is "leader in a faculty union" as Al put it. UW-Madison faculty are not unionized, and show no signs of serious interest in unionizing. Cronon is president of the American Historical Association, but that is hardly a union, either.

Faculty at other UW campuses have voted to unionize in recent weeks. Perhaps that is what has confused matters here.
One OTHER way that it can make sense--which most people refer to--is if the public sector provides other benefits than pay, which somehow compensate for any pay differential. Excellent examples might be working conditions, raises, ability to get fired (or not,*) social benefits, etc.

It's convenient to ignore those factors. But it's not a match for reality.

*Seriously. This is one of the most undervalued things about government work.

I've worked both public and private sector. I haven't noticed a difference in firing practices between them. Union and non-union, definite difference—in a union setting the large corporation actually followed the contract rather than strong-arming employees individually.

Is one of those "other benefits" a pension? I'm paying 13% of my gross salary for my pension, but at least we workers have control of it. If it was the public, I'd be worried, as governments are setting themselves up to default:

This struggling small city on the outskirts of Mobile was warned for years that if it did nothing, its pension fund would run out of money by 2009. Right on schedule, its fund ran dry. Then Prichard did something that pension experts say they have never seen before: it stopped sending monthly pension checks to its 150 retired workers, breaking a state law requiring it to pay its promised retirement benefits in full.
Far worse was the retired fire marshal who died in June. Like many of the others, he was too young to collect Social Security. “When they found him, he had no electricity and no running water in his house,” said David Anders, 58, a retired district fire chief. “He was a proud enough man that he wouldn’t accept help.”
Illinois keeps borrowing money to invest in its pension funds, gambling that the funds’ investments will earn enough to pay back the debt with interest. New Jersey simply decided not to pay the $3.1 billion that was due its pension plan this year.

Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota have all taken the unusual step of reducing the benefits they pay their current retirees by cutting cost-of-living increases; retirees in all three states are suing.
I stand corrected about my post that Cronon was a 'union leader'. That was an inference that I made, based on what little I've read. I've now read more, including quite a bit from Cronon's blog. Here is one paragraph from today:

"In my heart of hearts, I keep hoping that even Republicans who learn about my situation will respond by saying to themselves that this is not what their party should stand for. Indeed, in my own understanding of the history of the GOP, leaving aside dangerous aberrations like Joseph McCarthy, what I am experiencing is not what the Republican Party claims to stand for. It is time at last for 'the angels of our better nature', in the words of another great Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to reassert themselves."
I have to say, having worked in IT for years, I know that it's all to easy for the right sys admin to snoop through anyone's email. None have done so that I know of, but it's not rocket science to do so. Also not rocket science to recover deleted email. Enough time and the right backup tape and you're golden.

I do know from experience that an employee does not even have to be notified if a superior wants to explore their email. Whether that's legal or not, I don't know. I know I sign a form that says my work email belongs to my employers and they have the right to peruse it if they have cause to do so.

I am extraordinarily careful about my email and surfing activity at work. I haven't yet taken the step of not checking personal email at work, but I think I will in the future. I believe I have nothing to hide, but just utter the words "out of context" over and over and you start to see things differently.
What Anonymous Philip writes at 10:48 AM was alleged during the "W" administration. Hints appeared that a shadow (private) e-mail system was being used so that certain discussions would never appear on a government server and could never be subpoenaed because no one even knew they existed, let alone what e-mail name to ask for. Text messages to a private Blackberry or e-mail to a hidden g-mail account would all fall in this category.
I'm amazed that a professor of history thinks McCarthy was an aberration. Sure, he was pretty bad for the time, but HUAC had no shortage of volunteers, including later Republican President Nixon.

I understand the idea of strategic naivete and trying to allow people to rise to expectations. But I think the fiction that the American conservative movement and its political arm, the Republican Party, is not anti-democratic (both large and small d) has gotten very expensive.
I'm also not sure why anyone thinks that the Wisconsin shenanigans are certain to backfire. I can see a "backfire" possibility, but there's also the alternate possibility that the Overton Window will be pushed even farther right. After all, systematic torture of detainees is now accepted US policy. Why not systematic harassment of people who speak publicly in favor of liberal policy?
No, it was a worst thing to do.
never assume email is private. ever. what's to stop a google employee from reading your gmail? what's to stop your university network admin from reading your email? nothing.

if you check personal email at work, always use SSL.

email is used as a paper trail, often purposely (vs phone or face to face). email provides proof. it will be used as such.

universities might be able to get around this if they contracted out their email service. if it is state funded, but via a contract, it probably wouldn't be public domain.

@PunditusMaximus, i agree with you (disagreeing with @Al). party line voting is sacrilegious these days. it's hard to convince a Republican to not vote Republican, despite any track records. plus, what if this actually saves them money without a significant hit on education. my school district gets several hundred applicants per job opening. those kind of numbers only signify that there are lot of people who will work hard for less money.
They'll work for less money, but they won't necessarily work hard. They will definitely appear to work hard. Also, since the last things conservatives want is a well-educated citizenry, this is a win-win for them.

Remember, the most conservative states in the Union -- Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama -- are also the most miserable holes. Maybe, just maybe, that's a feature to them.
The tactic is spreading:
Dean Dad and distinguished commentators, what about the conflict between this FOIA request and FERPA protections for students? The request would certainly draw in e-mails between Professor Cronon and his students including such items as comments on their papers. Yet, instructors are supposed to use their college e-mail accounts for just these purposes. I'd be interested to hear your perspectives on this element of issue.
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