The “Anonymity” Policy

The anonymity of the Taboo and Therapy mailing lists at Olin has been sacrosanct in the minds of students for years. Until recently, it appeared that the security of the lists was impenetrable. However, on the weekend of March 5th, an Olin student discovered that the unfiltered archives of all Olin mailing lists (including senders email addresses) had been openly accessible to the world for several years.

Xy Ziemba is a junior at Olin, currently studying abroad in Belgium. Frustrated by the difficulty of navigating mailman list archives, he decided to write an Outlook plugin that would allow students to search through old mailing list posts with ease. During his research to write this plugin, he discovered that all emails sent to a mailman list were stored in a plaintext archive at a URL particular to the list. If you knew the standard mailman format for this URL, you were able to access these emails. He tried this for the anonymous lists from his computer in Belgium, only to find all the emails ever sent to the lists, with headers perfectly intact.

“[The problem was] a lack of knowledge on their part of how Mailman worked and (most likely) a missing .htaccess file or Apache directive,” says Xy. Within 20 minutes of accessing this URL, he sent an email to Olin College IT, alerting them of the problem, and IT took swift action to make the URL inaccessible.

The history of anonymous list privacy is a turbulent one, as far as Olin histories go. The privacy of the list has been broken many times over the years, and, in my experience, has been treated very differently as different classes come and go, with different experiences of list history.

In November of 2006, I was a Sexecutive board member, along with Paul Mandel(’09), and president Tiana Veldwisch(’08). Sexuality list membership was rapidly growing from its inception in May of the same year, and with the influx of new students came scattered incidents of trolling and disrespect. In addition to these issues, we also faced concern from students and administrators about the possibility of a student posting to the list indicating that they would commit harm to themselves or others. Under what circumstances would we break anonymity? Under what circumstances should anonymity be broken?

Over the next few weeks we spent many hours holding meetings, arguing, theorizing, drafting, and re-drafting. In the end, we revised the club charter to contain, among other things, a section on the conditions of breaking anonymity.

“When an email to the list suggests that urgent action must be taken to ensure the safety of any member of the Olin community, the anonymity of the poster of said e-mail will be broken…We will use the lock-box model and consider the identity of the poster to be locked in a box with three locks, and only if all three keys are turned will the identity be revealed… The three keys are: the President of Sex, an R2, and the Dean on Call (member of the OSL).”

Strangely, we decided against including any mention of the Olin Honor Code, or suggesting any route of action to break anonymity in case of an Honor Code violation. The Honor Board, however, has found its own method.

There have been at least two Honor Code cases involving anonymous mailing lists, where the identities of the senders have been found out by a member of OSL requesting list data from IT. In these cases, the identities of every sender in the thread is made known to the OSL administrator involved in the case, not just those identities of those involved in the case. In addition, there is no notice given to anyone on the list, or even to list moderators (unless they are involved in the case), as all details of an Honor Board case must remain secret.

Fortunately, so far the identities of anonymous mailing list senders have been safe from eyes outside the school. When IT checked their access logs, they found that no one had accessed any URLs containing sensitive anonymous mailing list data up until Xy found them.

Says Xy, “The Honor Code didn’t have a damn thing to do with my decision to report a vulnerability when it was found… People here trust this list (and Sexuality) to remain anonymous and it was the right thing to do.”