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The University implemented a new electronic privacy policy on Friday for a one-year trial period, marking the conclusion of a time-consuming effort to put a policy place. The policy went into effect after a comment period that ended Friday, during which there were no comments or criticisms submitted. The final version -- which was approved by University Council at its April meeting -- includes changes made after the Undergraduate Assembly voiced several concerns about student rights in the earlier draft. The new policy outlines the circumstances in which the University can check student, faculty or staff e-mail or computer files, and requires that the University notify anyone whose files are read. These new rules have been formally followed for some time, so the policy will probably not affect University procedures, according to former University Council Committee on Communications Chair Martin Pring. Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing Jim O'Donnell said in an e-mail that the policy provides good privacy protection for all involved. "This only covers one dimension of areas of electronic privacy, but it's a vital one for Penn faculty and students and staff and has been built to work well and protect peoples' rights," he said. "The long consultative process worked out very well for us all." According to Pring, the new policy affords the faculty and staff more protection than existed before. "The employer -- absent the policy -- has almost unlimited rights," the Physiology professor explained. The policy includes four situations in which the University reserves the right to check e-mail or other electronic information, such as computer files or voicemail. E-mail can be checked if it is required by law or will yield information for an investigation into a possible violation of law or serious infraction of University policy. The other two clauses allow monitoring if it is necessary to maintain the computing system or is needed in an emergency situation. A fifth clause notes that staff e-mail can be searched for information necessary to the functioning of the University. The policy also mandates that individuals whose e-mail or computer accounts are investigated must be notified as soon as practicable. But while Pring said the policy will provide faculty and staff with increased protection, he noted that it wasn't as clear cut where students are concerned. "The situation with respect to students is somewhat less clear [than] the relationship between staff and the University," Pring said. "They certainly aren't employees." Pring said this meant the committee had to balance the student's position as a client of Penn with the University's role as a parental figure. However, in the end, Pring doesn't think the policy will have a significant day-to-day impact. "It's not going to have that big of a practical impact," he explained, adding that the policy simply provides a "proscribed set of steps" similar to what would have been done before. The Undergraduate Assembly was involved in the drafting of the policy, demanding an earlier version of the policy be amended to better protect the rights of students. But the UA released a statement in support of the policy with its implementation last week. "We now believe that the policy addresses the concerns of the undergraduate population," the statement read. "At the same time, we believe that due to the constantly shifting technological environment of Penn, the University community must vigilantly monitor this issue to ensure that the electronic privacy of Penn's faculty, students and staff is preserved," the statement continued.

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