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Spinning the Web: Navigating Tufts’ Wireless Networks

Tech & Innovation | November 7, 2016

When students, staff, and faculty wander onto campus, they cross not only a physical but also a digital border into Tufts University. The latter is what connects smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices to the Tufts wireless network. Providing service to thousands of users each day, campus Internet systems are extensive feats of digital architecture. And, as with all wireless networks, there are rules and expectations of conduct within these intangible communities.

 

“Computer access—so common as to seem a right—is, in fact, a privilege and is conditional upon responsible and ethical use.” This is the first sentence of Tufts’ Computer Ethics and the Appropriate Use of Electronic Resource section, located in the Student Handbook. The handbook emphasizes that it is each individual’s role to comply with policy, not Tufts’ obligation to supervise activity. “A good rule of thumb,” according to the handbook, “is that conduct that would be illegal or a violation of University policy in the offline world will still be illegal or a violation of University policy when it occurs online.”

 

Copyright law, libel, invasion of privacy, cyberbullying, obscenity, child pornography, and indecency are among the eight laws and policies that Tufts explicitly highlights. Nevertheless, enforcing these codes of conduct can leave room for subjectivity. The vagueness of what is defined as rule-breaking can make it challenging for students and the administration to maintain a relationship of trust.

 

While most campus networks have common goals of providing solid coverage and speed to their users, their means of ensuring security vary. For example, Tufts states a precautionary warning in its Information Stewardship Policy, a central component of its overall IT policy, that, “The University, may, at its sole discretion and without notice to the individual: monitor the activity of individuals without notice whenever there is reasonable cause to believe that a law, contract, or any Tufts policy is being violated.” It continues to explain that such results are allowed to be used in university disciplinary proceedings, and may be disclosed for legal purposes, such as a subpoena. In short, the university has total jurisdiction to maintain its technological infrastructure.

 

Still, not all campuses articulate the same ethos towards their Internet users. According to Cornell University’s Internet Technology FAQ page—a feature absent from Tufts’ IT domain, but common among many other universities’ websites—”CIT does not monitor or ‘sniff’ individual data to examine the content of any data sent or received,” and does not restrict or impose bandwidth allocation, a common way of locating high amounts of streaming activity. However, exceptions deemed appropriate by breaches in campus policy can still result in compromised user privacy.

 

Beth Knauss, Tufts’ Information Security and Compliance Program Manager, helped clarify monitoring concerns. “Tufts and TTS [Tufts Technology Services] do not actively monitor users’ email or internet traffic for content,” she said in an email. “The only time attention may be drawn to a person’s machine would be if they are passing large amounts of data out of the network, their computer is reported to us as launching malicious activity, or if their machine is reportedly serving out copyrighted material.”

 

Such indeterminate contractual agreements are an inevitable reality of most private and public networks. Whether or not a student is on campus Wi-Fi, torrenting is still an illegal act. The difference then lies in the level of threat to each network. Unlike home networks, which typically require a high amount of traffic to cause a legal stir, copyright agencies commonly watch universities where these acts are frequent and saturated. In the Student Handbook, Tufts is open about the increased frequency with which students face consequences for unauthorized activity: “Each day the university receives complaints from copyright holders bringing these infringements to our attention.”

 

Copyright companies’ stronger emphasis on university networks leads to consequences for individual students. Last fall, junior Jordan Lauf received two emails from Brendan Sullivan, the Senior Customer Support Representative at Tufts Technology Services. The emails detailed two specific accounts of DMCA violation, one from Fox Copyright, and the other from NBC Universal.

 

“I was using a streaming app called Popcorn Time, and, supposedly it is just streaming movies and content, not downloading. I guess they had modified the app so that you had to turn off some setting that was automatically downloading [movies] to your computer. And I was not aware of that,” Lauf said.

 

About a month later, Tufts Tech Services emailed Lauf saying that Fox Broadcasting System had notified them of an illegal download of one of their films over Tufts Wi-Fi, and that disciplinary action would be taken. Shortly after, she received another email, this time regarding NBC Universal. But she says the most interesting part was that for the whole week after receiving these emails, the Wi-Fi on her phone was not working. Initially presuming that it was just trouble connecting, Lauf only learned that her phone had been restricted when she received an email from Tyren Freeman, Tufts’ Student Affairs Coordinator.

 

The email detailed her consequence: a warning, which is a non-disciplinary sanction. Lauf was still in good standing with the university, and would not have any permanent note on her disciplinary record. However, similar to disciplinary actions involving alcohol and drugs, the email warned that if a second DMCA violation occurred, she would face a reprimand, and a third could result in probation or expulsion. The email closed with a confirmation that Lauf’s phone had, in fact, been blocked. “TTS restricted your access to the Tufts network when the violation came to their attention in order to prevent any further violations, however a copy of this letter has been forwarded to TTS, who will now restore your access to the Tufts network,” the email said.

 

“You get an email saying that it’s been reinstated and not that they turned it off. I literally thought my phone wasn’t working. That’s sneaky,” Lauf said. She also noted that the entire situation was handled over email, and that she never formally met with anyone about the matter.

 

While Lauf’s case exemplifies a course of action Tufts has taken to address issues of copyright voiced from the outside, other students are concerned with Tufts own surveillance of perceived misconduct. Nicole Joseph, a member of Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC) and Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), discussed group practices that aim to avoid using Tufts wireless Internet and email services. “There’s been a lot of TLC events where we were like, ‘Wow we really didn’t talk about this anywhere.’ We don’t understand how [the administration was] ready at the time we were going to be there, kind of thing. Which really could be anything, but also it’s never a bad idea to keep your forms of communication secure so that doesn’t have to be a potential threat,” Joseph said.

 

With the ambiguity surrounding what warrants Internet monitoring, and what consequences may arise—from formal disciplinary hearings to surprise blocks on mobile Wi-Fi—there is rationale behind Joseph’s words. Ander Pierce, also a member of TLC, echoed these sentiments of circumventing campus Internet. “It helps our organizing, and also in the real world doing communications securely is a good idea, it’s just good practice to go through means of communication that they can’t monitor.”

 

While some remain distrustful of Tufts’ networks, Knauss is working to clear up user expectations. “Using information technology comes with the obligation that requires all of us to follow the applicable laws and regulations, as well as Tufts’ policies,” she said. “TTS and Information Stewards at Tufts are helping to expand the awareness in our community of how to use IT services effectively and responsibly.”