Google an option as Pitt considers new email platform

By Danielle Fox / Staff Writer

Zeba Ahmed is opposing the Student Government Board’s proposal to re- place Pitt’s current email platform with Google — through a petition she posted on Google Drive.

“What about the people that don’t like Gmail?” Ahmed asked. “I’m pretty sure that [all students] probably don’t support a change to Gmail.”

In a unanimous decision, the Board voted last Tuesday to pass a resolution that urges the University to adopt Google’s platform, Google Apps for Education. The resolution was introduced at the meeting one week before and claims that “Google Apps for Education is a more efficient, cost-effective and user-friendly option than the current University email platform.”

Google Apps for Education is a free package of Google applications, including Gmail and Google Drive. It operates with Google Cloud, a data storage system.

The Board does not have the authority to switch the University from its current electronic platform, EnterpriseMail. Instead, its resolution claims to speak to the University on behalf of the student body.

In 15 days, more than 1,270 students and faculty have signed an online petition drafted by Google Student Ambassador Zach Alcorn urging the University to adopt Google Apps for Education.

Ahmed, a senior majoring in sociology and 
Japanese, posted her petition around 1 a.m. last Friday. By Tuesday, 27 students had signed the petition against Google Apps for Education.

“I’m actually not against Google, just certain things,” said Zeba. “It’s in the same format as the pro-Gmail petition. It’s in the same format so it would be comparable.”

She also said that although she uses a Google account for a club she’s involved with, she personally dislikes the service’s interface and finds it confusing.

Ahmed said she was proud of the discussion that has come out of her petition. She hopes to present her petition to the Student Government Board after she garners more support from students and faculty.

Board President Gordon Louderback said he looks forward to hearing Ahmed’s arguments against Google Apps for Education.

“This is the first student I’ve heard who is against it,” Louderback said. “I think that it’s important to hear what she has to say.”

Louderback met with Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey and Pitt Chief Information Officer Jinx Walton in Humphrey’s office Monday night.

During their meeting, Louderback presented the Board’s resolution, and the three discussed Google Apps for Education.

“In my personal opinion, [Webmail] is not up-to-date with that of other platforms that are available,” Louderback said. “I think that there are few options that the majority of students, faculty and staff would be familiar with and Google Mail is that option.”

“What I did get out of the meeting is that [the University is] actively working to find a solution to our current system,” said Louderback.

According to Louderback, the University has formed a committee to discuss the different potential email platform options, and this committee is working toward having a different operating system in place for the fall 2014 semester.

Walton declined to comment on the meeting, referring questions to Pitt spokesman John Fedele. Fedele was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Fedele said in an email last week that the University is still in the process of evaluating mail services and is not prepared to discuss the results of that process.

While Pitt email accounts would run Google services under the Board’s proposed plan, the University of Pittsburgh would remain the sole owner of all data connected to the accounts.

After U.S. News & World Report released its annual university rankings earlier this month, Google released a statement saying that 72 of the 100 highest-ranked universities have already introduced Google’s platform on their campuses. Google reports that more than 20 million university and K-12 students use Google Apps for Education and that operating Google’s free platform saves the University of Notre Dame $1.5 million a year.

Representatives for Notre Dame were not available for comment.

“You always want to look into what other schools are doing and try and stay competitive with other schools,” Louderback said.“If we don’t offer a service that a lot of other schools offer, it makes us look a lot less attractive.”

Alcorn works as a Google student ambassador, promoting Google products and services on campus and acting as a liaison between Google and Pitt. If the University does switch to Google Apps for Education, the Google student ambassador would work to help educate students on the new platform.

Alcorn declined to comment on whether the Google student ambassador is a paid position.

Louderback said the committee evaluating options for a switch in Pitt’s email services has identified security as the most important topic and will focus on how the data is stored and who has access to the Pitt email addresses under each alternative.

Ahmed said that the main reason she started her petition was because of her objections to Google’s interface and not its security measures. However, she said that she still had some reservations about confidentiality for users of Google Apps for Education.

Alcorn said Google employees would not have access to data stored in University accounts.

“When you [ask], ‘Can Google see data on any Google products?’ I think what people are really asking is, ‘Is a human reading my stuff ?’” Alcorn said.

“Absolutely not,” he said, answering his own question.

While Google would not have access to University data, an account administrator assigned by Pitt would have access to any data stored in University accounts, including email. However, this would not be a change from current University practice. With EnterpriseMail, administrators are also assigned to manage student and faculty data.

Corporate offices for Google and J2 Global Communications — the company that owns EnterpriseMail — were unavailable for comment.

According to the Office of Computing Services and Systems Development, University and administrative units are currently grouped into divisions referred to as “responsibility centers.” These responsibility centers are overseen by an administrator. Some examples of the divisions that form responsibility centers are the School of Law and the School of Medicine. Regional campuses are grouped as separate centers.

The administrator’s role is to ensure accurate data, allocate resources as intended, create new email accounts and answer ques- tions students have about their email accounts.

For commercial Gmail accounts, namely those not connected to the organization’s education platform, Google uses an algorithm to scan through the user’s information. This information is then used to generate targeted advertisements tailored to those users’ individual interests, according to Adam Lee, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Computer Science.

Lee added that those who currently opt to forward messages from their email addresses to their commercial Gmail accounts allow Google to use their information for these advertising purposes.

Alcorn said that accounts connected to Google Apps for Education differ from commercial email accounts because they are not data-mined for advertisements. While Google would not generate revenue through advertisements, as the organization does with commercial accounts, Google benefits by exposing users to Google products in the hope that students and faculty would continue to use them outside of the University.

If the university were to adopt the platform, information that is currently on Pitt servers — such as email messages and account information— would need to be transferred over to Google’s servers.

Google stores data from accounts using a program called Google Cloud.

“Cloud is just the computation and the storage is outsourced to somebody else,” said Lee.

If a company has extra storage capability and processing power on machines that are currently idle, the company can choose to rent the storage and processing power to other individuals.

“Cloud is as much a marketing word as it as a technology advancement,” Lee continued. “The idea of expanding the capacity you need on demand, that’s the key idea.”

Google stores and distributes data in computers at data centers located throughout the world.

Lee said this complicates privacy standards regarding data because different countries have different privacy agreements.

“It’s like any sort of international com- merce, international travel,” Lee said. “It’s always more complicated than travel within borders.”

“I think that the big thing is that you need to be careful when your data leaves your control, making sure that it’s going to be protected,” Lee said.

Alcorn said that the transition process to Google from any other platform generally takes about a year for a university of Pitt’s size.

“As a constant user, I certainly don’t see a downside of this,” he said. “It saves University money, it’s greener. It’s a better product. I think any time you have a transition, people are going to complain about different things. But I think in the long run, it’s absolutely the best decision for Pitt.”