By Alexandra Bosanac
When Lakehead University wanted to replace their obsolete email system, they made an unconventional choice: Google’s free email platform, Gmail. The switch increased storage capacity for students ten-fold and barely cost the university a dime.
It was the perfect solution, but there was a catch: faculty were told not to send student marks through the new email system.
The reason? Gmail is based in the United States and falls under U.S. laws like the Patriot Act. That allows U.S. authorities to secretly access personal data stored by U.S. corporations. Essentially, email accounts are fair game for the prying eyes of the Department of Homeland Security.
Stephen Hockema, a professor at the University of Toronto, says the U.S. considers any online traffic moving through the country its property.
“It’s sort of murky what the jurisdiction is, whether the U.S. will be able to claim jurisdiction over international traffic flowing through the U.S,” he says. “The U.S. certainly thinks they have jurisdiction.”
Free email accounts like Gmail, Yahoo and Microsoft’s Hotmail are among the most widely used Internet services in the world. They’re popular because they offer inboxes with massive storage and the ability to send emails with large attachments. All without any monthly fees.
Most students polled on campus said they don’t use Ryerson’s service as their primary email account. About half of those said that they used Gmail, and almost all of them named a U.S-based provider as their primary email.
According to Andrew Clement, an information studies professor at the University of Toronto, the reason for the lack of privacy when using U.S.-based email providers is that they aren’t under the protection of Canadian privacy laws.
“I think there are privacy issues with having personal email on the servers of corporations that fall under U.S. law, and in particular, the [Patriot Act],” he says. “They can be accessed at any time without reason, and without notification, or without even publicity by the Department of Homeland Security.”
In Canada, a privacy law exists to keep information safe. It makes clear that organizations, including email providers with servers based here, must protect an individual’s private data and personal information.
Hockema says that although no one is really sure how the U.S. might be monitoring emails, it could involve alarms being set off if keywords are repeatedly used.
He adds the information collected could essentially put someone on a no-fly list without that person being aware of it.
Unlike providers like Gmail, Ryerson’s email servers are tucked away in the basement of the Podium building on campus, beyond the reach of the Patriot Act.
“There are Canadian laws that protect the data,” says Casey Carvalho, associate director of Ryerson’s Computing and Communications Services (CCS). “We act as custodians protecting the data — we have to secure it some way and we do that.”
He admits that he has non-Ryerson email accounts, but never uses them to send sensitive information.
Ryerson email accounts hold 100 megabytes (MB) of data, which is relatively competitive for the space it offers students. In comparison, York gives students 50 MB of space while U of T provides 120 MB.
Gmail however offers up to 70 times as much space for free (with additional space able to be purchased). It also has built-in features that Ryerson lacks like instant chat.
For those who choose to use US-based email services, Hockema has some words of advice.
“Be careful. Just like you have to be careful about what you put on your Facebook page — it might come back to haunt you in the future.”