The Grex staff very strongly believes in protecting the privacy of our users. Users should feel reasonably confident that their files and E-mail will not be looked at either by other users or by the Grex staff. It is not possible, however, for us to give any unconditional promises that the Grex staff will never look at a user's files.

This document is meant to describe our thinking about the kinds of circumstances under which staff might look at, or distribute, private information about our users. Rather then describe a rigid set of rules, it is a fairly exhaustive list of the situations under which staff does use root access to look at user's data. From time to time new situations come up that the staff hasn't ever had to think about before. Such situations are handled in a manner generally consistent with the examples listed here.

These situations always require judgment. There are some things that are clearly OK, and some things that are clearly not, but there are wide gray areas, where a staff member must use judgment. Often there is not time for staff members to discuss the situation, and whichever staff member is on the spot must make a judgment call.

Grex's situation is in some ways unique:

There are several common situations may require a staff member to look at a user's mail or files.

Lost Passwords

Every day, several users forget their passwords and ask staff to reset them. Before resetting a password and mailing the new password out to someone, it is necessary to be reasonably sure that the person the password is sent to is the same person who originally created the account. Since many people give very little real information when they create an account, determining this can be challenging.

In all cases, staff first tries to authenticate the person using public information (.plan files, .forward files, web pages, etc) or information explicitly given to staff (the newuser log files). They don't go further unless the user expresses some urgent desire to get back on the account (usually to access email sent there). Then, if the staff member feels inclined to believe that the user is who he claim and if that user requests it, a staff member may check to see if non-publicly readable files have the contents the user says they have, or if there are other clues to the owner's identity on the account.

When a staff member does this, it is important to keep the search as narrow as possible, and not to repeat or reproduce any information found, no matter how trivial, particularly not to the presumed "owner" of the account.

User Assistance

Sometimes a user will have problems with their account, such as a screwed up .login or mailbox file. In such cases, users sometimes request a root to go in and fix it for them, either because their accounts are so broken that they can't access them or because they lack the knowledge to do it themselves.

This is one of the clearest of the OK situations, but some caution is still required. The staff member should get explicit permission from the user, and should make clear to the user what kinds of stuff the staff member is likely to be looking at in the course of making repairs. The staff member should be reasonably confident that this is the real owner of the account, should try to look only at what needs to be looked at, and should not repeat or reproduce anything seen.

Users Causing Problems on Grex

Some users cause problems on the system by doing things like running programs that place a heavy load on the system or attempting to break into the system. When staff notices such things (which may be things with obvious effects on the usability of the system, or may just be subtle things that show up in our logs), it is often somewhat urgent to find and fix the problem. This may require looking into a user's directory without any form of permission from the user.

NOTE: By "causing problems" we mean technical problems, not social problems. No degree of rudeness and unpleasantness would justify any staff investigation of a user's private files or mail. Only actions that appear to undermine system security or performance may do so.

In many cases it is unclear if the user is causing problems deliberately or accidentally. If the user is running a program that slows down the system, for example, a staff member may have to look at the program to try to determine if it could be the cause of a problem, and if it is deliberately so or accidentally so. When staff looks at such a program, the goal should be exclusively to determine its intent and its impact on Grex. Copies should not be "borrowed" (exception: Grex staffers sometimes collect copies of programs designed to crash or crack the system for use in testing our system security), and detailed information about the program should not be repeated to anyone except other staffers.

In cases where the problem appears accidental, staff generally tries to contact the user and advise him on how to avoid the problem in the future. Details of what staff may have seen are not repeated to anyone except other staffers.

In cases where the problem appears deliberate, staff may look more broadly through the user's files to try to get a complete picture of what he may have been doing. Quite often relevant information is compiled and passed on to administrators of the sites the user uses to connect to Grex, and to other sites that may have been compromised by the user. Copies are likely to go to national organizations like CERT that track security problems. Grex staff may leave such accounts active, and may do more than the usual amount of monitoring of the activities of such users. However, even in these situations, staff will try to keep information unconnected with the problem private.

Users Causing Problems on Other Systems

Sometimes staff receives complaints about our users causing problems on other systems on the internet. All such complaints are taken with a degree of skepticism. The staff always tries to figure out who is doing the complaining, and insists on having enough details to judge the validity of the complaint. Staff does not necessarily launch an investigation every time someone somewhere complains about someone. There must be some kind of evidence that the problem is not completely imaginary.

Among the most common complaints are those about users sending email that bothers someone. Staff will readily help people figure out if the email really came from Grex, and will give out information about Grex accounts that is publicly accessible to any Grexer (NOTE: this includes records of from where that user connects to Grex). Staff will not look into any private information in response to such complaints.

Complaints of Grex users attempting to crack other systems may trigger a more thorough investigation of their accounts on Grex, along the lines described in the previous section.

System Problems

Under very rare circumstances, problems with the system might lead us to more-or-less inadvertently see private files. For example, if Grex had a serious disk crash, and staff members were inspired to go to extreme lengths to recover user data from the dead disk, they might need to see some of that data in the course of reconstructing it. Similarly, a really ugly failure of the mail system might require that staff look at the mail that it failed on.

In this kinds of situations, staff members should make an effort to find ways of dealing with system problems that do not require actually looking at private information, and they should not divulge any information they might run across.

System Usage Research

To do a good job of supporting our users, the staff needs to have a good idea of how they use Grex. So staff sometimes gathers of data about how people are using Grex. For example, if Grex were considering eliminating a particular service, the staff might collect information about which users are using it. They might use the list of names to contact the users asking for their input or advising them of a change. They might publish statistics about how many users use a service. However, staff would not publish a list of names of people using a service.

This kind of research should be done only when it serves some direct end. It shouldn't be just to satisfy idle curiosity.

Cooperation with Legal Authorities

If Grex's staff is contacted by law enforcement officials they will cooperate with any legal search for information on Grex. Grex staff will freely give out any public information that is already available to any Grex user (including records of when people logged in and from where they did so) and will assist in the understanding and interpretation of such information. Private information, such as the contents of a user's personal files and mail, would be made available only if a valid search warrant were provided.

Grex's staff will not normally try to act on their own judgments on issues like libel and slander. People with problems of that sort should work through the proper legal authorities, and Grex's staff will cooperate with those authorities.

Though generally the Grex staff tries to keep anything they see when looking at private files secret, a staff member might someday see something that he or she feels must be reported to the authorities. This would be a difficult decision depending very much on the particulars of the case. Grex has no fixed policy on how such cases should be dealt with.

Staff's actions will also in general be influenced by their judgment of how private a piece of data might be. Generally, one should assume that any file that is not permitted to be readable by all users is meant to be private. However, if it is something like a .login file (a file full of Unix commands that is automatically executed when the logs in) then staff tends to be less scrupulous about privacy issues than if it is something like a mail file. However, staff members need to be careful even in looking at things that don't seem very sensitive. Things that don't seem very private to us could still seem that way to the user.

When staff does have to look at private information, the basic principle is to look as narrowly as possible. For example, instead of looking at a person's entire mail file, one would use a program to extract and display only the information being sought.

Remember, it is always possible for new situations to come up, and it is always possible for staff members to make mistakes. However scrupulous the staff tries to be, users are advised to protect their privacy by not storing or sending extremely sensitive private information through Grex (or any other computer that you personally don't completely control).

Document History:

Jun 2, 1997: Jan Wolter (janc) - Initial Revision for staff review based on staff discussion.

Jun 8, 1997: Jan Wolter (janc) - Updated with staff comments. Posted for user discussion.

Aug 21, 1997: Jan Wolter (janc) - Updated to reflect user and staff comments.