By Eric Lam
Ryerson is now investigating possible breach of privacy issues faced by students and faculty by U.S. officials due to the country’s Patriot Act.
At an academic council meeting last week, President Sheldon Levy asked Julia Hanigsberg, executive secretary of the board of governors, to research possible vulnerabilities in Ryerson’s databases.
“It’s an issue we take very seriously,” Hanigsberg said. “It’s not something we just became aware of this week.”
Dave Mason, president of the Ryerson Faculty Association, had raised concerns at the December academic council meeting, but there were no formal complaints made. “What exposure do students and staff have to the Patriot Act?” Mason asked.
As reported in a November Eyeopener article, Turnitin.com, the anti-plagiarism website employed by Ryerson, keeps a database of student articles. This database can be accessed by American administrators under the American Patriot Act. Mason worries that if a student wrote about the moral implications of terrorism, and submitted his essay to Turnitin, his essay would “catch the attention of the FBI (or other agencies).”
Mason also said if he were an FBI agent, he wouldn’t be doing his job if he wasn’t monitoring Turnitin. “There is an opt-out for Turnitin,” Hanigsberg said. “Anyone who is worried about it can simply opt out and never get a subpoena because of the Patriot Act. I’m not sure if we need a policy change right now.”
Mason is still concerned. “I hope the university makes policies that eliminates (our) exposure,” he said.
Mason also warned that the danger faced by students and faculty goes beyond Turnitin.
He said because Ryerson’s online databases use Peoplesoft software, an American corporation owned by Oracle Corporation, any contracts between Ryerson and Peoplesoft would include a stipulation for its employees to access Ryerson’s databases for diagnostic purposes.
With that access, the U.S. government would again be able to access Ryerson’s databases through the Patriot Act, whether Ryerson’s servers are in Canada or not.
“This is pure speculation, but it’s conceivable a Peoplesoft employee could have privileged access to a Ryerson database,” Mason said.