Canada shifts data from US

November 24, 2006

Canadians undertaking security-sensitive research fear they could fall foul of the Patriot Act, says Philip Fine.

Canadian universities that use a US service for storing academic research files have decided to move their data to a domestic server to escape the long arm of the US Patriot Act.

An initiative from the Association of Research Libraries in Ontario has spread nationwide as fears grow that US surveillance could target academics who may be researching areas regarded as sensitive by the US Government.

RefWorks, a company based in Maryland, is used by academics from 650 institutions across the world to store research information. Among its clients in the UK are Cranfield University and Imperial College London.

RefWorks warns users when they log on to its service that the data are stored in the US.

Among other functions, the company stores a personal database of research that can be shared with colleagues.

The fact that personal subscriber information is on file has led to fears that the Patriot Act - introduced after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to help US federal officials track and intercept communications - would be applied.

The Ontario Council of University Libraries has been storing the information on a server at the University of Toronto and recently increased its storage capacity to meet demand from across the country.

According to the council, 37 universities now store their work in Canada.

The 300 RefWorks subscribers at Memorial University of Newfoundland have their files stored on the Canadian-based server, said university librarian Karen Lippold.

She said that not all her clients were worried about surveillance. The degree of sensitivity varied between academics and depended on the individual's personality and the nature of their research, she said.

RefWorks said that it had no problem with Canadians storing their work on domestic servers.

The company's president - perhaps worried about holding on to its US clientele - said that its lawyers were looking into what powers the US Government had under the Patriot Act.

Ms Lippold accepted that the files of Canadian academics might be vulnerable to domestic surveillance, but she said it was easier to deal with law enforcement agencies at home.

The University of Saskatchewan has warned its staff that RefWorks files might be accessed by US federal authorities without gaining their permission. It said it was exploring the possibility of moving the material to a Canadian server.

Cranfield uses RefWork to hold references rather than data. Its Shrivenham campus, where sensitive defence-related research is conducted, does not use the service.

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