Boston Globe reports the Ivy League university secretly spied on emails during investigation into leak about cheating scandal

A covert security operation at Harvard University saw the emails of 16 resident deans secretly searched in an attempt to unmask the culprit who leaked details of a cheating scandal at the Ivy League establishment to the media, it was reported Sunday.

The search took place late last year, but many of those targeted were not informed that their emails had been rifled through until a few days ago, when the Boston Globe began inquiring into the matter.

It relates to a leak to the media last August of a memo to resident deans advising them on what to say to students accused of cheating. As many as 125 students were initially implicated in the scandal, which concerned a take-home final paper on US Congress.

Around half of a class of 279 students were accused of sharing answers in the exam or outright plagiarism. Last month, Harvard University confirmed it had issued academic sanctions against about 60 students in total.

The group found to have been cheating has since been forced to withdraw from classes for a set period of time.

Meanwhile, security staff at the school embarked on a campaign to unmask the person who leaked the cheating scandal story to the media, the Globe reported.

The emails reviewed – apparently unbeknownst to the account owners – belonged to deans on the administrative board, a committee addressing the cheating. No prior warning was given to the deans that their messages were being accessed, it is alleged.

Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, said in an email to the Associated Press on Sunday that the university would not comment on personnel matters or provide additional information about the board cases that were concluded during the fall term.

"Generally speaking, however, if circumstances were to arise that gave reason to believe that the Administrative Board process might have been compromised, then Harvard College would take all necessary and appropriate actions under our procedures to safeguard the integrity of that process, which is designed to protect the rights of our students to privacy and due process," Smith said.

The Globe reported that it was Smith's office and the Harvard general counsel's department that authorised the search.

College spokesman Jeff Neal denied any routine monitoring of emails, but would not be drawn on the specific allegation reported by the Boston Globe.

"Any assertion that Harvard routinely monitors emails – for any reason – is patently false," he said in an email.

But Sharon Howell, Harvard's senior resident dean, criticised Harvard administrators and said they owed the deans an apology for failing to notify the email account holders until after gaining access to the emails.

"They don't seem to think they've done anything wrong," she told the Globe. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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