Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Did Harvard Just Make It OK to Spy on Employees?

Image via Marcio Jose Bastos Silva /

In scanning the email of its resident deans in order to suss out the source of a leaked letter, Harvard may have made history — in setting an example for how to spy on employees in "blanket" fashion: Search 'em all to find just one, and don't tell anybody about it. The university's statement on Monday, in which it admitted to scanning the electronic headers of more than a dozen deans' email history, capped a three-day-long controversy that began with the revelation on Saturday that Harvard officials, in an effort to plug a series of leaks to The Harvard Crimson (concerning that huge cheating ring), had identified a dean who forwarded an email to two advisees... and then searched the email of a bunch more deans. Being vaguely reminiscent of Goldman Sach's epic "Muppet" search that transfixed the banking world in 2012, Harvard's investigation also set off another debate about privacy in work environments — everyone's favorite topic! — due to the odd circumstances under which Harvard's administration conducted the search. 

Some background: According to The Boston Globe, Harvard professors Michael Smith (the school's Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and Evelynn Hammond (the dean of Harvard College) first tried asking Harvard's resident deans — who all received the leaked correspondence — if they had provided it to another person. When none of them did, Smith and Hammond ordered a search of the email metadata (not the emails themselves) for all 16 resident deans in question. That search turned up a still unnamed resident dean, who admitted that he or she had in fact forwarded the email to two students. As Kashmir Hill at Forbes points out, this procedure isn't that strange, nor especially far-reaching:

All in all, it wasn’t a very invasive search. They can be much worse. ... While you don’t completely give up your privacy when using work email or sending personal email from work devices, employers can go searching when they have a legitimate reason.

What was strange was the fact that Harvard declined to inform the deans that their email was being searched at all. This, Harvard claims, was a measure intended to protect the identity of the unnamed dean (who apparently leaked private correspondence by accident). But doing so kept the other deans in the dark, even as their emails got spied upon by their employers, which opened up Harvard to accusations that it had invaded the privacy of its faculty.

Read more at The Atlantic Wire.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.