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E-mail monitoring sparks outrage

July 11, 2001 

A rebellion broke out at Cambridge University yesterday over students and academics' right to privacy, after it was revealed private e-mails and phone calls would be inspected.

Some called on the chairman of personnel, Professor Peter Lipton, to resign, after his department made the announcement.

At a closed meeting of the university's academics with the pro vice-chancellor , nearly 20 speakers voiced outrage at the move and threat of disciplinary procedures.

While freedom of speech was the main preoccupation, one academic said: "There is a lack of trust between academics and the university that extends back over 25 years and which has been engineered before by the employers."

The argument at Cambridge University is the latest spat in a dispute that has affected most universities around the country. While monitoring employees' communications has become common in most businesses, the practice is only now becoming the norm in universities.

Last month, five academics at Derby University were suspended for looking at pornography, although several were later exonerated. It is this sort of false accusation and the intrusion that worries many academics.

A student welfare officer from Queen's College argued students were also concerned about the decision, saying e-mail at university is not just for professional purposes but for people to provide very private information to welfare officers and their tutors.

"Can students e-mail their lecturers about private problems in safety, knowing that private details will be read by no one else?" she asked.

Professor Peter Lipton, head of both the department of history and philosophy of science and the personnel department defended the announcement of new controls.

"Problems have arisen in some departments: members of staff have used the system to send e-mails to friends, to download pornography, for personal use, all to the great cost of the university. There is no intention to allow the university to retain personal matter," he said.

By Joe Plomin, © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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