Starting next September, Yale students will access their University mail using new Gmail accounts.
Provost Peter Salovey approved a proposal last week to run the University’s email through Google Apps for Education — a software suite that includes Google Mail, Calendar, Docs, Talk and Sites applications. Despite previous security concerns, Chuck Powell, associate chief information officer for Information Technology Services, said ITS has negotiated a contract with Google that addresses those concerns. He said he hopes to begin migrating student accounts from the current Horde email service to the Google platform Sept. 15, followed by faculty and staff accounts.
“We’re going to give you a brand new shiny Yale Gmail account,” Powell said of the switch in an interview with the News.
The new Yale mail service will resemble Gmail, but will feature a Yale logo and no advertisements, he added.
ITS Chief Information Officer Philip Long said ITS will migrate University affiliates’ 20,000 active email accounts to Google in three waves. The first wave will include students as well as faculty who do not use Yale’s digital calendar services, he said. The second wave will migrate accounts for faculty who do use these services and substitute that feature for Google Calendar as necessary, Long explained. The final wave will migrate more complicated staff accounts that contain sensitive data such as protected health information, Long said. He said he hopes the entire process will be complete within two years.
The move will cut ITS’s email budget by at least one-third, Long said. Because Google will provide storage for each email account, Powell said, Yale will no longer have to maintain servers that store email. Currently, ITS buys new storage servers every year.
Long said ITS will produce instructions so that students can migrate their email accounts to Google at their own pace, calling on student techs for help as necessary.
“It’s not the kind of thing where we’re going to force people to move,” Long said. “Any kind of change always affects people on some level.”
The professional schools will determine when and if to make the move themselves, Long said. Although Powell said most community members are on board with the decision, some continue to object out of concern for data security.
Powell said the biggest single concern in outsourcing email to Google was email security. In the contract ITS negotiated with Google, he said, Google has agreed not to access, index or view Yale’s data. Long said Yale will continue to administer students’ netIDs and passwords internally, and that Google will not have access to this information.
Both Powell and Long said they are confident Google will adhere to these conditions.
“We have every reason to believe that Google will treat your mail just as securely as ITS on this campus,” Powell said. “It would be horribly bad publicity for Google to contemplate violating your privacy. It’s such bad business that I can’t imagine they would want to.”
Computer science professor Michael Fischer has criticized the plan to outsource the University’s email for over a year, and said he does not share administrators’ trust that Google will honor the new contract.
Violations could occur without Yale’s knowledge, he said, adding that he believes it would be impossible to prove that Google breached its clients’ privacy unless the company’s employees were willing to testify.
“The cyber world doesn’t work like the real world,” Fischer said. “We hope nobody’s going to do anything bad with it, but it’s not enforceable. If the privacy violation occurs within Google, you wouldn’t know it.”
For his part, Fischer said he plans to continue to use an alternative email server run by the Computer Science Department, though he added that he will be careful of what information he sends in emails to colleagues who use the new Google email server.
But ITS officials do not anticipate that privacy concerns will stop universities from using Google. Powell and Long said outsourcing email is a growing trend among universities. The move will make Yale the second Ivy, after Brown, to outsource email to Google.
All eight students — seven undergraduates and one Law School student — interviewed by the News said they are happy with the University’s plan to switch to Google Apps from Horde.
ITS first submitted a proposal suggesting the use of Google Apps to the University about 18 months ago. A faculty advisory committee recommended that the provost accept the proposal in December 2010 after about six hours of discussion.
Powell added that while ITS had considered outsourcing email to another provider, ITS realized that the Google platform is preferred among students since 56 percent of students already forward mail to a Gmail account.
The faculty committee that considered the proposal considered the plan from many angles, including what would happen if Google were to go out of business.
Yale’s contract with Google Apps for Education is five years long, Long said, and the University would consider moving to another provider, such as Microsoft, if Google closed.
Google Apps for Education Suite was released Oct. 2006.