The PATRIOT Act

Beyond the policy considerations of U of R, there are other legal considerations that should be considered. The USA PATRIOT Act means that the US government is able to request information hosted on servers stored in the US without informing the owner of that information in the interest of seeking out foreign terrorist threats, including hackers. The provincial government of British Columbia investigated this issue and has put in place legislation that states that public bodies, including universities, may only store personal information in Canada. Nova Scotia is the only other provincial government to adopt similar legislation. Neither Saskatchewan nor the Federal government have any legislation about these issues. The Treasury Board of Canada provides an information page about the PATRIOT Act which clarifies that the chances of any request for information being made is remote and that the Federal government was not aware of any cases of this Act being used to access a Canadian’s data at the time of publishing the page (2006).

Although there is no policy directly restricting instructors from asking students to use websites or software that store information on US servers, this potential level of access does mean personal information is at risk. Anything stored on a server in the US could be accessed by the US government, regardless of privacy terms published by the company owning the servers. There is no specific U of R policy governing this issue. The way it is handled differs between departments and faculties and between instructors. The risk is remote but it does exist.

Beyond personal information, there is also the issue of content. When considering the use of a US-based service or site, it is important to consider what topics your students may be engaging with and what types of discussions could result. If the content they are sharing relates to topics like anti-terrorism laws, national security or other issues that may be of interest to the National Security Agency in the US, it may be best to protect the privacy of students. Even if the content is not going to be publicly available, the privacy terms of the site do not protect you or your students from the gathering of information under the PATRIOT Act so choosing an alternate option such as a discussion within UR Courses (which is hosted on campus) or using software such as Adobe Connect (the recordings of which are stored in Saskatchewan). If it is necessary to proceed with using a service that will store its information in the US, it is important to make students aware of the risks involved to allow them to make informed decisions. Providing options for such an assignment would also allow students to make their own choices.