On Monday, 11 June, 2023, a very curious phenomena started popping up all around Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Suddenly, every email, every Word document, every Microsoft-driven software item we use every day, now had a little brand on it. Not the brand of a university desperate to assert its identity as a sustainable or socially forward organisation, but a mark of closedness: “Classification: Internal.”
Our public university overnight transformed into a special operations mission, with top secret documents in every smiley face email reply, every journal article in progress, every lunch date appointment. While some might feel exhilarated with the trappings of a James Bond movie, this IT stunt betrays a much more worrying tendency. By some mysterious force, shrouded behind that one-size-fits-all excuse of ‘security’ and ‘safety’, the knowledge workers of Erasmus University Rotterdam have somehow become the targets of an (ongoing) harassment campaign.
Mind you, the official justifications of classifying everything isn’t harassment; that is merely its consequence. I’m sure there are good IT reasons for turning the thumbscrews on professors and students. Without asking us about whether this is necessary or helpful, all of a sudden, the top-down powers that be invade our computers (including my home computer, on which I am writing this), reach into the bowels of our programs and documents, and assert arbitrary power. Old Word documents from twenty years ago suddenly appear with a ‘Classification: Internal’ label when I open them. I feel violated.
When universities institute measures without consulting those who they will be forced upon, we stop working as a democracy. The illusion of scholarly autonomy and self-determination shatters.
Cory Doctorow, the internet freedom pioneer would call this ‘monopolistic dominance over informational systems’, mediating the communication of a supposed ‘free’ and ‘open’ university. To the heart of the matter, for what reason does every document we create or send now have to be labeled? Creating the ‘Classification: Internal’ begs the question: what is there to hide? And from whom? By building a psychological wall, either to keep something out or keep something in, does this constraint not further hamper the open discussion a university should foster? By calling police on protestors or setting up IT ‘obstacles’, does this not widen the gap between the generation that will have to face the many crises of the future and the institution they trust to learn from? Top-down institutions have the duty to foster bottom-up action and discussion, not to further clog the communication channels of its staff and students.
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The hermeneutics of suspicion which seems to be selectively fashionable shows that ‘Classification: Internal’ is an instance of a larger pattern. Our university is known for making backroom deals with fossil fuel companies to write its curriculum, but EUR doesn’t hold medical records, it doesn’t for the most part perform secret basic science. And for those of us who do work with confidential information, with the proliferation of review boards, ethics panels, and other trainings, it is part of our professional status and responsibility to make damn well sure that we take appropriate precautions with sensitive information. Putting a meaningless label on anything might be a lawyer’s idea of precaution and plausible deniability, but for the rest of us, it is nothing more than a burden – a scarlet letter.
An email to a colleague congratulating them on the birth of their child, or collaboration with a colleague at our own or another university, does not need to be labeled by default ‘Classification: Internal’. For internal communication, it’s redundant. For external communication, it’s insulting. And every time I, and the tens of thousands of other people affected need to figure out how to remove this automatic label, it takes time. And that time aggregates into hours, and tens of thousands of wasted hours over a year and large population means that our university squanders precious resources to impair our ability to do our jobs.
To put any label on by default makes that label superfluous by definition. To label everything ‘Classification: Internal’ or anything else, makes it lose its meaning in about two days. IT might have considered to consult with a philosopher who understands logic or a psychologist who understands human psychology before pulling the trigger on such an asinine plan. I’m sure it sounded good on paper, but in practice it is self-defeating.
Going against the spirit of privacy while masquerading as following the letter of the law, such practices have GDPR turning in its grave. Our university needs to reverse this policy immediately, and start using the science and expertise we have, to make sure that bad ideas like this stop proliferating.