Canadian Schools Flee From US Servers

    November 13, 2006
    WebProNews Staff

Universities in Canada fear the potential for abuse that could take place under the US Patriot Act, so to avoid the gaze of American investigators they have moved their RefWorks accounts to Ontario.

The RefWorks tool permits researchers to manage reference information and citations as they delve into a variety of topics. Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing noted how a subset of researchers have become so concerned at the potential for running afoul of US authorities who may investigate their work that they have been moving their accounts to hardware at the University of Toronto instead of the US server they had been using.

“There’s concern among scholars that they could be identified and flagged if they are doing research on sensitive areas (North Korea, terrorism, nuclear weapons),” Doctorow wrote.

The potential for a federal agency to sift silently through a resource like RefWorks increased after the passage of the Patriot Act in the US. The Patriot Act has been cited by President George W. Bush as a necessary tool in combating terrorists and those who aid them.

The recipient of a Patriot Act subpoena cannot discuss the request with anyone, including the person or persons being investigated. That has caused significant controversy in the United States.

In Canada, the system should be a little more friendly to researchers. An article published in The Globe and Mail noted the motivation for the move:

“There is certainly concern within Canadian university libraries. It’s a concern about a foreign country having access to your personal information without good cause,” said William Maes, librarian at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “That’s the devious thing of the Patriot Act, they can do this without letting anybody know.”

Academic researchers probe a variety of topics, and they can include ones that are also subjects of interest to counterterrorism efforts. Performing in-depth research into something like the potential agents for a biological attack could make a particularly paranoid investigator fear the researcher had a motive beyond academia.

If the researcher happens to hail from a country that the US considers a source of terrorists, a completely innocent academic could be incorrectly targeted for questioning by federal authorities. It is not impossible to consider that a Patriot Act inquiry could turn up a legitimate concern.

Now that Canadian RefWorks users have switched to the servers in Ontario, we won’t be surprised if US researchers try to follow. The recent US election that displaced the Republican Party from leadership in the House and Senate could have an impact on that decision, as academics may think they have less intrusion to fear from a Democratic-controlled Congress.

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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.