University administrators intentionally executed a shutdown of Georgetown’s e-mail system and a removal of e-mail from student mailboxes Tuesday evening after learning that a broadcast e-mail had been erroneously sent by the University Registrar’s office. The e-mail contained private information about certain university students.

This was the first time university officials executed a shutdown and purge of an erroneously sent e-mail.

The Department of Public Safety intended to send a notice about a robbery that occurred near campus Sunday, according to John Q. Pierce, university registrar. Instead, an internal DPS document not intended for students, containing information about several incidents that occurred over the weekend in addition to the confidential personal information, was sent to nearly 2,900 graduate students, Juan C. Gonzalez, vice president for student affairs, said.

“It was an unfortunate incident,” Gonzalez said. “To be most honest and direct, it was simply human error.”

While most broadcast e-mails are edited and retyped, among other “checks and balances,” this e-mail was mistakenly overlooked, Pierce said.

Gonzalez said his first concern was ensuring that the three students named in the e-mail were contacted and that the university took necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the e-mail.

The registrar’s office sent the e-mail at approximately 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. After realizing that the wrong document was sent, staff members contacted university administrators shortly before 5:00 p.m. Following consultation with administrators at University Information Services, the Office of Communications, university counsel, the Provost and Deans offices and the Registrar, Gonzalez said he ordered a shutdown of the university’s e-mail network.

“I can’t translate what a significant decision that [the shutdown] was,” he said. “At 5:30 UIS was executing that effort immediately.”

Within two hours, the e-mail had been limited in its distribution to 2,900 graduate students, and it was caught early enough to alter its delivery to undergraduate students, Beth Ann Bergsmark, director of Academic and Information Technology Services, said.

After consultation with administrators and legal counsel and consistent with the Acceptable Use Policy Guidelines, Gonzalez said he directed UIS to purge the e-mail from graduate student e-mail accounts, replacing the e-mail with a blank message, an involved process that lasts between four and eight hours.

While the purge involved entering individual student e-mail accounts, it was conducted mechanically and electronically using a computer program to ensure the integrity of the e-mail system, Bergsmark said. The purge could not alter e-mail that had been forwarded from a student’s GUmail account to an account under a private carrier, such as America Online.

Administrators underscored the fact that the process of removing e-mail from student mailboxes was so involved that it could never be done on an individual basis.

“Not anyone can go in and grab an individual’s e-mail,” Bergsmark said. “The length of the outage shows that this was an extraordinary event and it shows the effort the university has to put into conducting a purge.”

In addition, the people executing the e-mail removal had no say in the decision to purge the system, Gonzalez said.

“We protected the privacy and integrity of the e-mail system,” Gonzalez said. “UIS ought to be applauded in that they worked all night and did their best to execute the purge.”

Before 8.00 a.m. on Wednesday, the suspension had been remedied and e-mails stored during the outage were delivered.

Gonzalez said that the first reaction of administrators was to protect the privacy of the individuals whose personal information had been released, justifying the removal of the e-mails.

“[Tuesday’s] analysis, response [and] movement – our primary concern – was taking care of students,” he said. “We will now begin discussion of what were the ramifications of those [actions].”

Pierce said the university would re-evaluate its current system for distribution of broadcast e-mails.

“We had steps and procedures that we thought were adequate,” he said. “But they clearly didn’t work [and] we now have to go back and make sure that they do work.”

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