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Heads in the Cloud

A local college follows the trend and signs up for Gmail, accepting all the benefits and potential troubles that come with it

By Cecelia Martinez

On Monday, the more than 7,000 students at the College of Saint Rose were able to log in to their new Gmail-powered student email accounts for the first time. Flyers emblazoned with Google’s primary-color scheme were hung around campus advertising the switch from Microsoft Outlook to Google Apps Education Edition for managing student e-mail, contacts, calendars and file hosting and sharing.

The switch, which came after repeated solicitations of feedback and multiple student information sessions, is one that more and more colleges are making. University of Notre Dame, Northwestern University, University of Virginia, University of Florida, George Washington University and the two-year SUNY Orange are among the growing list that are signing up for the one-stop communication service that Google offers. Students keep their current email addresses, but get a greatly increased storage capacity, 24/7 technical support, and the user-friendly Gmail interface, complete with customized themes, message labeling, chat, and pop3 e-mail fetching.

Because Google dips into so many different services, it allows for easy synchronization. People can check their e-mail, chat with a friend, print out directions to their business meeting, double-check the meeting time on their calendar, pull their PowerPoint presentation, even upload a video of the meeting to send to coworkers who couldn’t attend—all using Google services.

The best part is that Google Apps Education Edition is free and ad-free. According to Saint Rose Information Technology Services director, John Ellis, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much the college spends annually on providing student e-mail through Microsoft because it is bundled with other services, but he says that Saint Rose has paid a licensing fee of $5 per student or approximately $35,000 total each year to Microsoft.

At a time when local universities are experiencing tuition hikes, shrinking endowments and massive staff layoffs, outsourcing student e-mail to Google can help to balance a stretched budget, particularly at schools with a larger student enrollment.

While many of the students at Saint Rose were in favor of the switch, the main concerns involved privacy and security. Along with the convenience of Google, there also comes the reality that someone else is responsible for the primary means of communication between students, faculty and administrators.

The practice of working and storing information online is called “cloud computing,” and it has many benefits. For businesses, there’s no need to invest in a dedicated server or IT staff. It frees up valuable hard drive space, and files can be accessed from anywhere there’s an Internet connection. Anybody who uses a Web site where data is stored only online—Backpack, Flickr, Salesforce—is on the cloud. While some businesses, and people, make the conscious decision to utilize cloud computing, many people don’t even realize they’re on the cloud until something goes wrong and they lose valuable information or services. It could be the company that runs your file- hosting Web site going out of business or suffering a worldwide outage.

That happened to Gmail earlier this year when, in February, consumer and business accounts experienced a loss of e-mail service. Not only were people unable to send and receive e-mails, but they could not access the e-mails they had already received, including valuable attachments, contacts and other information. Although the outage only lasted for 2.5 hours, Gmail users worldwide panicked, and Google blog posts updating on the outage were linked, tweeted and pinged across the Internet. Google resolved the situation relatively quickly, but issued a mea culpa to all those who were displaced due to the loss of their vital Gmail accounts.

“We know how important Gmail is to you,” wrote Acacio Cruz, Gmail reliability manager, in a blog post, “and how much people rely on the service.”

There is also the issue of privacy. According to their terms of service, while Google claims no ownership or control over anything you send, post, or receive using Google services, it does reserve the right to prescreen, flag, filter, refuse, modify, or move any content that may be inappropriate. It may also disclose your account information and any content if required to do so by law.

Your data may also be exposed to those outside of Google. According to a recent article in the International Business Times, while Gmail does use a secure connection to encrypt login information, the default setting for its e-mail service uses an unencrypted http connection. Users can opt to always use a secure https connection, but many Gmail users don’t realize that their content may be at risk. In March of this year, a bug in the Google Docs service resulted in some documents being shared without the users’ knowledge.

Whether or not you decide to trust Google ultimately will depend on how much you value your content, how secure you want it to be, and how willing you are to live without the services that Google provides. Earlier this month, a letter signed by 38 experts in the fields of computer science, privacy law and information security was sent to the CEO of Google demanding better privacy and security for users of Google cloud-computing services. This comes after the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed an official complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in March asking them to investigate the security of Google services after the Google Docs gaffe. That’s something to think about before hitting “send.”


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