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Cyber rights... and wrongs

By Erica Hill
CNN Headline News

Technology writer Annalee Newitz:
Technology writer Annalee Newitz: "I believe that it's fine if [the] university wants to regulate, for example, bandwidth access, but they should treat the students data as private data."

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Boston University's policy on computing ethics external link

(CNN) -- I can't remember a single person worrying about cyber rights when I was in college. Maybe it was because the Internet heyday hadn't yet arrived; maybe it was because the thought never crossed our minds; maybe we didn't know they were important.

Just a few years later, the rules have changed.

Technology writer Annalee Newitz looked at the best and worst when it comes to campus cyber rights for the latest edition of Wired Magazine. What she found surprised me.

Using the U.S. News & World Report list of the nation's top 50 research universities, Newitz compared the schools based on three areas: how much privacy students had on university computer networks; the availability of privacy tools -- and whether they charged for them; and what the school's bandwidth limitations were.

All the information is public; Newitz told me she found it on the university Web sites.

I expected MIT -- Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- would come out on top. I didn't expect schools like Columbia and Berkeley to wind up at the bottom.

I wondered about the state of affairs at my alma mater, Boston University. I did a little search to find out what the current policy is.

Penned in June 1997, the Boston University Conditions of Use and Policy on Computing Ethics clearly states that anyone using university facilities -- including university-supported e-mail -- "are on notice, and by using these facilities agree, that no representation has been made to them as to the privacy of any communication or data stored on or sent through these facilities."

That summed it up pretty clearly for me. In case I didn't get it, the policy goes on to state that use of the university's computing facilities is a privilege, not a right (now it was sounding like I was back in school).

I asked Newitz about similar policies at other universities. We abide by company rules every day at work. It didn't seem that far-fetched that students would have to live within the confines of some university-defined rules in cyberspace.

Newitz disagreed, noting the difference between network administrators looking at traffic and monitoring content.

"College students are private citizens, they're not employees of the university," she told me. "They are paying to be there, and in a lot of cases because they are paying they're actually paying for the use of the university network."

"I believe that it's fine if [the] university wants to regulate, for example, bandwidth access," she said, "but they should treat the students data as private data."

She's not off -- privacy is increasingly important as it slips away.

It's a topic that is sure to get more attention as both universities and students become more technologically savvy. In the meantime, it is a delicate balance, one that may best be achieved by discussion from both sides.

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