Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Privacy issues prompt program revision

June 13, 2001

More than 4,000 freshmen will enter the residence halls at MSU this fall with their required Internet-ready computers.

While computers will provide new students with easy means of communication and learning, some University of Michigan students also are discovering the easy means of annoyance computers provide.

U-M technical personnel recently deactivated the “fingering” protocol on campus following some stalking complaints.

But an outcry from students and faculty who use the program regularly led to the return of the program - with some alterations.

“There was a great demand for ‘finger’ to stay on,” said Seth Meyer, systems engineer at U-M. “Now we’re trying to get a happy medium between privacy and the usefulness of the technology.”

Unaltered, the protocol can provide information about any person logged in to a computer network, including name, address and e-mail address.

It also can provide the location of the system being logged into and the last time a user logged in.

U-M’s alteration erased information about where people are logged in. Meyer and other technicians will spend the summer evaluating the changes to see if they were sufficient.

“We want to find out if this is the comfort level that people want to be at,” he said. “There were hundreds of people using it. They really thought it was valuable.”

Some practical applications of the protocol allowed students to instant message back and forth. Also, professors could use it to see if students told the truth about not having the chance to check information sent by e-mail.

Meyer estimates 60,000 people on U-M’s campus utilize the protocol and similar applications.

He said it is not difficult to use and doesn’t require much technical knowledge.

But when the program was created in the 1970s, most scientists never realized the protocol might be used for less-than-pure reasons.

“Given that the Internet is so widely used, there weren’t a lot of people that could find out about you,” Meyer said. “Now that U-M has 60,000 that use (the protocol) on a regular basis, that’s a lot of people and the concerns are quite different.”

But MSU students shouldn’t be too concerned about the protocol and its privacy problems.

Computer Center Director Lewis Greenberg said the protocol has been turned off on most computer systems at MSU, and would provide no more information than what is available in the student directory anyway.

“I believe that privacy is paramount,” he said. “We wouldn’t have a system like that on our campus.”

The computer directory available through Pilot, MSU’s e-mail system, provides student and faculty information similar to what can be found through U-M’s finger protocol.

But anyone can request to have certain information - or all of their personal information - removed from the system with a trip to the registrar’s office.

“It’s really quite flexible,” said Dugald McMillan, associate registrar. “There’s the ability to be rather specific about what happens. One can restrict the Pilot address, but still appear in the hard copy publication or vice-versa.”

McMillan said the number of requests to edit directory information is relatively low, although new requests can come in at any time.

“The reasons for restricting directory information are as numerous as there are people at the university,” he said. “Reasons are around the spectrum, and they’re all very valid. We try to be sensitive to everybody’s needs.”

While packaging junior Kellie Gunn said she felt the directory information is safe, she is happy the fingering protocol isn’t used at MSU as it is at U-M.

“I don’t think I’d like it if everyone knew where I was,” she said. “I think it’s only a small percentage who are bored enough to look into actually doing it.

“I think we’re pretty safe.”

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