Why I believe email snooping is a threat to academic freedom

November 10, 2000

Surveillance has become a pathology in the British workplace. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which came into force last month, provides a legal framework for employers to snoop on how their staff use the internet and to monitor their emails. It will give employers the green light for wholesale surveillance. Such regulations threaten to turn universities into wired Dickensian workhouses with central control and monitoring.

There are profound implications for academic freedom. Academics should protect privacy in the workplace. Instead, so many have rolled over for management. Once management institutes an architecture of surveillance throughout the university, the relationship changes between academics and their institutions.

Academics have a duty to speak out against the dangers of creeping surveillance. Once we accept that information is going to be filtered, we have entered into a Faustian pact, compromising the ideals that have nurtured academic freedom, thought and communication down the centuries.

Academic freedom cannot survive in an environment of control. The result of blindly allowing management to snoop is that academics will become self-censoring and paranoid about communicating freely.

We stand a grave risk of ending up with academics who evolve in something like a 17th-century religious environment, conscious of doing the right thing, and communicating in "appropriate" ways, mindful of surveillance and subservient to the demands of management.

Academia should be forward-thinking and controversial - these are the elements that allow it to thrive. Once communications have been inhibited, the quality of thought generated within universities will suffer. Academics should demand rigorous accountability from management. They should ask for justification for surveillance.

Although I am appalled by child pornography, which has been used to justify surveillance, this should be balanced against the right to free communication. We should ensure that university management complies with the Human Rights Act, the Data Protection Act and other laws that call for restraint.

Academics should be prepared to test the limits - not roll over and accept surveillance.

Simon Davies is visiting fellow, department of information systems, London School of Economics

  • Interview by Helen Hague.


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