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Current university e-mail system poses threat to students

Nov. 18, 1997

The Internet has become an integral part of a student's life. Every day students check and send e-mail, surf the web, both for pleasure and academic reasons, and interact with people across the globe. Yet, we all know there are many hazards lurking about on the big, bad Internet. And many believe that the biggest hazard the Internet presents is privacy, or the lack thereof.

One would think that an institution such as Baylor would do everything in its power to protect the privacy of its students and faculty. And in a way, it does. Yet, the one thing that almost all students and faculty depend upon in their everyday work is the one thing that Baylor has failed to recognize as a dangerous threat.

I am talking about our electronic mail addresses.

On the surface, one would think that it is very convenient to have your name as an e-mail address. The biggest advantage being that you would never forget it. However, it also has many disadvantages. First, by simply knowing your e-mail address, or just your name, a person can do a simple search from the Baylor home page and learn a plethora of information about you. Your current address, phone number, major, classification, permanent address and phone number can be easily accessed from the web. Some might not care that anyone in the world can find these things out with a few mouse clicks, but others will find it disconcerting.

To be fair, the administration has made it easy to fix this problem. Simply access Student Stuff and you can change your directory settings. This way, you can limit what a third person can learn about you. Nevertheless, this is not enough. A single phone call to Southwestern Bell will also allow a person to find out your phone number. Or, if they can get their hands on a local phone book, they can also find out where you live.

Simply, having a student's name as an e-mail address is convenient, but very dangerous, as it exposes the identity of the student to everyone he or she corresponds with via e-mail. But this is not the only disadvantage to the current system. Take me for example. My first and last name consists of 16 characters. It is not ever easy to tell someone verbally that my email address is Randolph_Tjahjono@baylor.edu. It is already enough of a challenge to spell T-J-A-H-J-O-N-O, but then they have to remember there should be an underscore between the first and last name. Sure, if your name is something like John Smith, it's no big deal. Or is it? If more than one person at Baylor has the name John Smith, then your e-mail will be John_Q_Smith@baylor.edu (or whatever your middle initial actually is). This is even worse. Now your e-mail address contains a letter in the middle of two underscores. Also, there is the problem of confusion. How are people supposed to know whether you are John Q. Smith or simply John Smith when trying to send you an e-mail?

The administration should consider changing the way it assigns students e-mail addresses. Other universities have come up with something practical and simple without resorting to what Baylor does. For example, Texas A&M uses the format abc1234@acs.tamu.edu. Tthis is just an example, not a real address.) It contains the students' initials and the last four digits of their social security number. An even simpler method is used in universities nationwide: they simply use a student's first initial and then their last name. If there are duplicate names, a number is attached to the end. For example, John Smith could be Jsmith, or Jsmith1, or Jsmith2, ad nauseam. Nevertheless, this system still contains the problem of privacy, as it does not really disguise a person's name.

An even better solution would be to let students create their own e-mail addresses. Such fine institutions as Rice, M.I.T, and the University of Texas use this method. For example, a big Star Wars fan could have the address yoda@baylor.edu, or students can choose nicknames or preferred names. I would rather have Randy@baylor.edu than my current one. An imaginative student could be funny and set their address to somejuan@baylor.edu. Or, a zealot free-market advocate can use John_Galt@baylor.edu, thus eliciting the question, 'Who is John Galt?' from friends and strangers alike.

Granted, a university can go too far with this. I have seen addresses from students at other universities that have 8 alpha-numeric characters and end with something like @linux3.xtc.4u.qwerty.college.edu. The key is balance. We need a system where students will not be exposing their identities to everyone who comes across their e-mail address, and at the same time have something that is easy to remember and use.

With the continued penetration of the Internet into our everyday lives, it is important that the university does its part to protect students from the inherent dangers that the Internet contains.

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