UC Berkeley: first university to release transparency report

Transparency reporting is being extended to campuses as the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) recently released the first report detailing how the requests to access emails and other digital information without theusers’ consent are handled.

“This Electronic Communications Transparency Report records the number of requests and approvals for non-consensual access to UCB electronic communications,” the university says in the report available on the website of the Office of the Chancellor.

“UCB sometimes gets requests from government, law enforcement, or an internal source asking for access regardless of the record holders knowledge or consent,” the university explains.

According to UCB’s student-run newspaper The Daily California, the university is “the first college in the United States to publish a transparency report detailing non-consensual requests for electronic communications.”

The electronic communications include emails, calendars and online documents held by students, faculty and staff.

Transparency reporting in recent years has become common practice among the world’s leading internet companies. Google initiated the report in 2010; Twitter, Facebook and other technology companies soon followed.

By revealing how they handle the requests from government and other institutions to obtain their users’ records, these companies aim to restore public trust that were lost after the Edward Snowden leak in 2013. He revealed details that the internet service providers’ were complicit in extensive internet surveillance by American intelligence.

In the wave of transparency reporting, regional initiatives including Hong Kong Transparency Report were established to promote government accountability and the protection of personal privacy.

UCB introduces the practice into education institutions.

The report shows that the university received 51 non-consensual access requests from January 2014 to June 2015, of which 41 were approved. 18 of these requests were granted for the reason of “time-dependent, critical operational circumstances”, overwhelming other categories.

It is a circumstance in which “failure to act could seriously hamper the ability of the university to function administratively or to meet its teaching obligations”, according the UCB’s Electronic Communications Policy.

The policy regulates that the university does not examine or disclose electronic communications records without the holder’s consent, with exceptions under four circumstances:

-required by and consistent with law;

-substantiated reason to believe that violations of law or of specific University policies have taken place;

-compelling circumstances;

-under time-dependent, critical operational circumstances.

But the policy is not applicable once the information holder leaves the university. 15 or 36% of the approved requests were accepted for this reason.

Unlike Google, UCB does not provide any case exemplifying its practice in the report. Elana Zeide, a privacy research fellow at the New York University, told news website Inside Higher Ed that the releasing is not “earth-shattering,” but “is a fantastic step toward creating more transparency.”

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