U.S. surveillance a threat to Canadian research

While other universities switch servers to avoid monitoring under the Patriot Act, a Queen’s professor says Canadians should be more aware of threats to their privacy

Queen's won't be joining other Canadian universities in moving their research away from possible U.S. government monitoring because its research is already safe from prying eyes.

According to a recent Globe and Mail article, many Canadian universities and colleges have relocated their RefWorks accounts, previously stored on a server in the U.S., to Scholars Portal, a Toronto-based server operated by the University of Toronto on behalf of the Ontario Council of University Libraries.

RefWorks is an American research program that also assists researchers in citing sources and creating bibliographies Behind this move is the hope it will prevent the U.S. government from monitoring their research under provisions of post-9/11 legislation such as the Patriot Act.

Associate Librarian Barbara Teatero said Queen's has been using Scholars Portal since it got RefWorks and other similar research programs in 2003.

"We only contemplated moving forward with RefWorks through local and a consortial initiative," she said, adding that Queen's never considered getting a RefWorks account independently and based in the U.S.

Teatero said research done on RefWorks and other search programs through Scholars Portal is protected from surveillance.

"None of the Scholars Portal's RefWorks data is stored or cached on the U.S. RefWorks servers," she said. "System admin function on the Scholars Portal RefWorks server is restricted to locally engaged staff."

RefWorks' privacy policy states that, "RefWorks reserves the right to disclose personal information if required to do so by law, or RefWorks in good faith believes that such action is necessary to: (a) conform to the edicts of the law or comply with legal process served on RefWorks or the site; (b) protect and defend the rights or property of RefWorks; or (c) protect the personal safety of users of RefWorks, its web sites, or the public."

RefWorks President Colleen Stempien didn't return the Journal's requests for an interview.

Sociology professor David Lyon is working on the Surveillance Project, an international survey on people's attitudes about being monitored in their day-to-day lives.

He said the risk of a government, specifically the U.S. government, looking at people's private research is a real one.

"We are concerned about the issue," he said. "It does appear that under the Patriot Act ... research is vulnerable to being checked by government officials in the United States.

"In this case, where RefWorks servers based in the United States are vulnerable to Homeland Security, I think Canadian academics are right to ... secure our own work."

The fact that a government body can search someone's personal research has serious implications, Lyon said.

"It certainly does threaten to compromise academic integrity, freedom to research without government or corporate or other interference: the very idea of free and independent research," he said, adding that he doesn't think the argument of security justifies compromising the privacy of all citizens.

"It seems to me that in the face of a genuine threat, the most efficient way of tracking the origins of the threat is to build on already existing threats rather than doing blanket searches that are likely to throw up all manner of quite irrelevant material, but also materials that might be politically compromising.

"Of course you're going to find pieces ... that question the rightness of the American administration or Homeland Security itself, and that can be politically compromising," he said.

He added that once people are flagged as being a threat by a government agency, it's difficult to shake that label.

Lyon said academics, and Canadians in general, should be more concerned about protecting their privacy.

"One of the key things that is apparent in Canada as it is elsewhere is the degree to which people are unaware of how their personal details can be used by government authorities [and] law enforcement," he said. "There appears to be a very high degree of complacency which, to my mind, is a grave mistake."

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