Cash-strapped universities' switch to Google Apps stokes post-Snowden privacy fears

Cash-strapped universities' switch to Google Apps stokes post-Snowden privacy fears

Summary: With university funding plummeting, Italy's higher education institutions are adopting Gmail – but not everyone's happy about the move.

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The University of Turin, one of a number of Italian universities moving to Google Apps. Image: Shutterstock

It's no secret that Italy's universities are short of money. Between 2009 and today, their funding from the Ministry of Education fell by €1bn (a 20 percent drop over the five years), leading to a widening gulf in Italy's investment levels and those of its European counterparts.

According to a recent report by the country's education watchdog the Anvur, Italy invests 0.52 percent of its GDP into academic research every year, compared with an average of 0.70 percent in OECD countries — which means it's spending roughly €3bn less than it should be.

No wonder universities are forced to cut salaries and services, including outsourcing email services, which can be costly to run.

Exactly who runs a university's email service might appear to be a minor issue, but some would argue that's far from the case. The company providing that email service — which not only students but researchers and other scholars use to communicate — could theoretically have access to the sensitive information and confidential documents that are sent over it, but expected to be kept confidential. Consequently, the decision to outsource email can cause concern — particularly when the company taking over the service is Google.

Many cash-strapped Italian universities — including Roma's La Sapienza, the University of Parma, the University of Ferrara, to name a few — have switched to Gmail in the past few years. 

Others, such as the University of Turin, have joined the list this summer. In the past, the news would have passed largely unnoticed, but times have changed. The Snowden revelations have highlighted the dangers of using cloud services provided by foreign companies — especially US-based ones, which could be subject to interception by the NSA. Just a little over a month ago, a federal judge in New York held that data stored by US companies on overseas servers must be handed over to authorities when they're subject to US search warrants.

Little wonder, then, that recent decisions by universities to adopt Google services caused a bit of stir in Italy. Some teachers — such as associate professor of sociology at the University of Turin, Luciano Paccagnella — publicly complained on the Nexa mailing list about the opacity of the procedure.

"We have been told that the university will save around €100,000 through this, and that users will also have a set of advanced services, but these are not the reassurances I need," he said. "What I'd like to know is: where will the servers storing our data be located? According to which legislation will they be handled? What happens if someone refuses to join the new service?" 

The issue even prompted a parliamentary question by Chamber of Deputies member Stefano Quintarelli of the Lista Civica group. "The main point here is that universities decided to switch to Google's solutions without even asking for users' consent or giving or giving them the chance to opt out," Quintarelli told ZDNet.

In his question, the MP maintained that outsourcing email services could pose a threat to the privacy of communications between researchers, and that by scanning and analysing the flow of messages, it could also be possible to reconstruct the network of contacts and relationships among Italian professors.

In order to provide its consumer Gmail service, Google scans messages to provide relevant ads. However, when it comes to the Google for Education services, the company maintains that it doesn't scan messages for advertising purposes, nor does it share users' information with third parties, except when it is required by law to do so.

This has not always been enough for European legislators. In Sweden, the data protection authority last year ordered a municipality in Stockholm to stop using Google Apps in schools due to inadequacies in its contract with the company. In Germany, to avoid using Dropbox or Google Apps, a network of institutions in the region of North-Rhine Westfalia  decided to build an inter-university private cloud using the open source platform ownCloud.

Having a custom cloud to rely on could perhaps soothe the worries of Italian scholars. In Italy, however, trying to deploy something similar to the German initiative could prove difficult, both due to the time needed to get it up and running (the ownCloud project started in late 2011) and also the current state of IT services in many Italian academic institutions.

"The choice here was not between a friendly public service and the evil private market leeches," the University of Turin's jurisprudence professor Ugo Pagallo said. "On the contrary, the previous academic email service in the last few years simply didn't work well. So much so, many researchers have already chosen to use third-party services to avoid problems."

Read more on Google Apps

Topics: Education, Collaboration, Government, Google Apps

Federico Guerrini

About Federico Guerrini

In the last 12 years Federico has been working as a freelance journalist, at first covering current affairs and economy and then focusing on technology, writing extensively for several Italian national media outlets.

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9 comments
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  • The cloud...

    If you have sensitive information that you would rather not share with the world's intelligence agencies (or corporate spies, or hackers) then God knows you should avoid cloud services. Heck, you're going to have enough trouble keeping sensitive information out of other people's hands if you store and secure it on devices that are completely internal to your organization. But in the latier case, at least you have the option of keeping stuff of the network, on standalone, non-networked servers in secured rooms.
    dsf3g
  • more important issue

    Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, etc are all betrothed to the US govt. So if you using products from these vendors ( and most likely they are), then cloud storage is moot; you are sending data to the US govt spy agencies anyway.
    GrabBoyd
    • Don't forget Huawei

      With them and their routers, you are sending data to China. You could be sending data to Canada if you use Nortel equipment, and I guess Nokia equipment sends it to Finland.
      Harlon Katz
      • Nokia stuff goes to MS!

        LOL
        Uralbas
      • idiot statements

        and the proof is?
        techguru@...
  • Sempre nello cielo

    Secondo me, piutosto nebbioso... Ben Myers
    ben_myers@...
  • Spelling

    Oh dear:

    piuttosto!
    DAS01
  • Before the internet, and before the cloud, and before MS or Google or

    Apple, people were communicating and creating data.

    If that data was deemed of any importance, the spy agencies of interested foreign countries, found a way to get at that data.

    With so many people involved in creating and managing the data, it's going to be virtually impossible to keep spying agencies away from that data.

    Sure, companies and universities need to make it as hard as possible for unauthorized people to get at their data, but, if it's worthwhile getting, somebody will find a way.

    Security in the computer age is virtually impossible.
    adornoe@...
  • I'd be more worried about

    I'd be more worried about the lack of productivity from those laughable web apps. If your cost saving measures are taking away tools people need to earn you money, you're in a serious death spiral.
    Buster Friendly