Fast Company

Yale University Panics, Gets Cold Feet About Switch to Gmail

Yale

Yale had made the decision to move from its own Horde email system to Google Apps for Education (a suite which includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs), but when presenting the plan to its administrators and faculty members, the Information Technology Services department immediately encountered resistance, reports the Yale Daily News.

Said computer science professor Michael Fischer:

Concerns about the switch to Gmail fell into three main categories: problems with “cloud computing” (the transfer of information between virtual servers on the Internet), technological risks and downsides, and ideological issues.

The concerns come in the wake of a very media-happy year for Google, which has seen a groundbreaking squabble with China, hacking attacks, and the rollout of an extremely controversial social networking service in Buzz. Those past problems have to be kept in mind while reading through some of these objections, because otherwise they seem, well, pretty weak.

Google stores every piece of data in three centers randomly chosen from the many it operates worldwide in order to guard the company’s ability to recover lost information — but that also makes the data subject to the vagaries of foreign laws and governments, Fischer said. He added that Google was not willing to provide ITS with a list of countries to which the University’s data could be sent, but only a list of about 15 countries to which the data would not be sent.
"Yale is an international, multicultural community of scholars,” he said. “Students deserve to have rights to their information while on campus."

Fischer goes on to claim that Yale might not want to seem to support Google's "large carbon footprint" and says that there are concerns about Google's security.

I'm not sure where Prof. Fischer is getting his information, but Google's data is certainly not subject to the laws of the country in which one of Google's servers that happens to hold a copy of said data is stored. (And that's not even mentioning the fact that those 15 countries to which the data won't be sent would certainly include every risky country he can think of, including China.) They may block access to information, but no foreign government has ever even hinted that they'd like to break into a server and steal user data, and Google has been fairly quick to report each time they've suffered a hacking attack.

Google's had a rough go of things recently, and this seems like piggybacking on the latest and greatest Google controversy, instead of thinking realistically. Google is one of the strongest and most agile tech companies in the world--their data needs to be secure, because their livelihood depends on it, and they have the ability to keep it that way. The article hints at this bias by saying "Google has been at the center of a number of recent controversies relating to privacy, security and intellectual property issues," which is sort of true, but mostly irrelevant. Google's decision to stop censoring search results in China does not affect its ability to monitor Google Apps for Education, nor does its rocky debut of Buzz.

Google Apps for Education is a pretty impressive program, one that could be of great use to students and faculty alike. Certainly Horde isn't capable of real-time document editing like Google Docs, or smart rescheduling like Google Calendar--and by succumbing to panic due to (let's be honest) irrelevant controversies, Yale could be depriving themselves of some great software.

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4 Comments

  • Steven Grant

    @mark roddis - you clearly haven't looked at Google's actual policy when it comes down to storing data for Apps customers? I work in local gov in the UK and I have been championing the use of Google Apps as a means for reducing costs in the current financial climate.

    Google understand concerns about data being on foreign servers and they do help cater for this by not storing it in places it shouldn't be.

    I get the impression that Yale haven't spoken to a Google Rep because they could easily allay any fears with a Q&A session as to what does and doesn't happen.

  • Gregg Oldring

    "They may block access to information, but no foreign government has ever even hinted that they'd like to break into a server and steal user data"

    This is interesting. I've heard differing legal opinions on this but there is definitely a sentiment outside the U.S. that the Patriot Act allows for U.S. government agencies to do this with data that is stored on U.S. soil. I know that there are many Canadian organizations that will not use Google Apps or other SaaS solutions where their data passes to the U.S. However some Canadian organizations have deemed it to be OK.

    What do you think?

  • Rodney Hart

    I am at Northeastern University and am happy to say that we switched to Google Apps for Education last year, and it has been incredible! You can easily see all events surrounding the school on your calendar. You can merge your own Google Calendar with the school calendar. The entire school email database is searchable, so all you have to do is type the name of the person you are looking for and Gmail finds the users email. Most importantly, our school no longer suffers from system-wide email crashes which used to happen at least 5 times a semester!

  • Mark Roddis

    Google's data is certainly not subject to the laws of the country in which one of Google's servers that happens to hold a copy of said data is stored!!!

    What?

    Of course it is.

    If somebody in another country turns up at a Google data centre with a court issued warrant, Google certainly won't be able to turn them away.

    In the same way that the US Patriot Act means the US Government can access my data as they wish if it touched US soil even though in my case I am based in the UK, so the same applies to many other countries.

    Would it happen? That's a different question but if you operate within a country other than your own you are bound by the laws of that country whilst doing so.