SOCS activity, e-mails open to College review; Officials say access is to help students, stop misconduct

SOCS allows professors to view the subject lines, time stamps and recipients of messages sent between students. (Illustration by Rachel Razza)

Professor-student relations are sometimes strained. But if you’ve ever gotten the sense that a professor knows your true opinion of them, it may be because they do.

Students may want to be wary of what they send to their classmates via the SOCS e-mail link — at least in the subject line. According to Patricia Pasinski, assistant to the vice president of Information Technology and Services, when e-mails are exchanged through SOCS between classmates, a professor can see the subject of the e-mail, time stamp and the recipient of the e-mail, whether or not they are marked as recipients.

Another feature of the SOCS module is a course log, which records a student’s entry into different sections of the system. This enables professors to take note of which students view certain documents posted on the resource page, when and how often, or if at all.

English professor Felicia Steele said the module helps professors identify reasons why a student is struggling in her class.

“It’s a tool for faculty to help students, not monitor them,” she said. “If I have a student who is failing my class and I can tell that she has never done any of the readings, or never even accessed SOCS, I have a better sense of what help she might need.”

E-mail is considered the preferred mode of communication at the College, especially through the Zimbra Collaboration Suite. This system also isn’t strictly confidential.

According to the Computing Access Agreement, which enrolled students must comply with to use the College’s network and computing services, “there are no facilities provided by the College systems for sending and receiving confidential messages and files.” The agreement also stipulates that system administrators or other College employees can “access user files in the normal course of their employment when necessary to protect the integrity of computer systems or the rights or property of the College.”

Shawn Sivy, director of Networking and Technical Services, said in an e-mail that the “normal course of their employment” includes “investigating and resolving problems reported by clients,” including SPAM or phishing reports. System administrators, he said, do not routinely monitor account files.

The Information Technology Email Investigation guidelines state that student accounts “may be accessed for technical reasons without the knowledge of the owner.” Information Technology, however, does not conduct investigations unless requested by other offices, such as Campus Police, Student Life or Human Resources, according to the guidelines.

“If there is misconduct issue, the College administration may request that e-mail and files be reviewed,” Sivy said. “On rare occasions, system administrators may need to spot-check e-mails/files in accounts after a system issue in order to determine the extent of damage.”

Students living off-campus aren’t exactly exempt from the agreement, either.

“The College only has access to off-campus computer activity when it intersects with the College’s network and systems unless a court order is obtained,” Sivy said.

Tracing e-mail forums, such as Yahoo! or Gmail is more difficult, but not impossible. Typically, legal documentation is required.

The agreement lists a slew of actions that qualify as “misuse” of the College’s online resources. In the event the College receives a subpoena from law enforcement or an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, it must provide copies of e-mails or files.

Last semester, an article appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education brought widespread misuse to the College’s attention. The College addressed rampant use of the file-sharing program, DC++, which violated copyright laws by connecting computers on the campus network and enabling students to download movies and music from neighboring computers.

Though the program has the potential for legal use in sharing non-copyright material, Sivy said this was not the case at the College. According to Pasinski, there were 29 copyright infractions last year. Sivy said “network architecture changes were put into place to mitigate the use of DC++ on the College’s network” over the summer.

The Computing Access Agreement can be found on the College’s website at tcnj.edu/~it/procedures/computeraccess.html.

Katie Brenzel can be reached at brenzel2@tcnj.edu.