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I'm a first-year medical university student and was given a Microsoft email with the uni's domain that is also connected to a free Office 365 subscription.

The uni wants us to use their email to contact them regarding anything related, and that's pretty reasonable. But, I was experimenting in the past with OneNote and was planning on using it for note-taking in the upcoming year(s).

My question is, how good of an idea is to use my uni's OneNote account and not my personal? Yes, I'm a bit paranoid regarding privacy, etc., and I seriously consider the things that could/may happen. I have changed my password but I'm sure that won't stop them ... Legal issues? What if they have 100% access to my notes? Everything?

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  • 5
    What country? Privacy laws may (will) vary. Aug 8 at 16:44
  • 2
    In your medical studies, are you going to have sensitive medical information about patients on your computer? Aug 8 at 23:38
  • 8
    Neither. Take handwritten notes. It's faster and allows the other half of your brain to conceptualize simultaneously. Med students have so much note-taking to do that you'd need single-hand typist speeds to keep up.
    – Trunk
    Aug 9 at 10:30
  • 3
    @Trunk OP could be taking handwritten notes on their tablet which is synced to an online account Aug 9 at 14:22
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    I can’t begin to imagine taking notes by hand being faster than typing notes. I’m confused by that notion.
    – Preston
    Aug 10 at 3:22

7 Answers 7

63

The privacy concerns are not to be dismissed, but my first worry would be retaining access to the notes in the future. A few years from now you will no longer be affiliated with the university, and they will probably close your university account. Will it be possible to export your notes to keep access to them? Will it be easy to do? Will you remember to do it before they disappear?

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    Very serious questions. That's also very important. Exporting wouldn't be an issue, but remembering it, could. Thank you.
    – user161468
    Aug 8 at 17:19
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    @AlexandrosKordatzakis Exporting as PDF will mess up anything you've drawn using the "ink" feature, including hand-written notes. If you export, export as notebook files from the desktop client (hard to do, but iirc still possible).
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 9 at 9:45
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    @AlexandrosKordatzakis Microsoft has a habit of removing features, so please confirm it's still possible before you rely on it!
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 9 at 11:28
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    @wizzwizz4 Presumably this desktop client is the same one used by paying customers. The idea that Microsoft is removing features from paying customers is horrifying. Maybe the best option is, as suggested by some other answers, not using OneNote at all. Aug 9 at 11:33
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    Apparently, there is no such thing as “100% offline” with recent versions of Windows. Aug 9 at 12:21
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Assume that the university, as well as Microsoft, has access to anything you write on "their" systems. How they use it is up to them.

The same is true for other providers as well unless you use encryption. The same is probably the case for any "cloud" based system.

If security is a serious concern then use your own systems, and back them up to an external drive (or such).

Remember that "free" isn't necessarily free. You pay in other ways than money.

My university also uses MS systems. I know for a fact that MS reads all my incoming mail, and outgoing if sent through the university system. In particular, they process every link in every mail. I've been fighting this for months.

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    I'm so glad Microsoft "reads" every one of my emails. Otherwise I'd get 20 invitations a day to submit a publication to a predatory journal instead of just the one that slips through.
    – Ian
    Aug 8 at 23:01
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    @Ian, while the anti spam filters are nice, it is also the fact that MS will use information from your email for marketing.
    – Buffy
    Aug 8 at 23:14
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    @Ian, I got a couple of emails from MS a month or so ago indicating that they have the data to do this. In particular, I got offers from them.
    – Buffy
    Aug 8 at 23:33
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    @Voo, the email suggested that the offers would be based on my email usage. They let me opt out of receiving them, but without mention of opting out of collecting the info. They are a business. They monetize everything they can. They aren't alone in that, of course.
    – Buffy
    Aug 9 at 14:40
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    @Buffy Interesting, I've worked with large companies that used O365 and had strict privacy requirements which meant they couldn't share some information with US providers (and required encrypted emails which was an unbelievable hassle). But now that I think about it, that might be a special European contract or something they had to specifically negotiate with MS. Seems awful of a University to force employees and students to use a mail account where data is shared for all kinds of purposes with a commercial entity.
    – Voo
    Aug 9 at 16:13
7

Personally, I think you are framing this problem totally backwards. You need to be worried more about Microsoft selling your personal account data to a data broker. As Buffy notes, you are the product, so of course they are going to sell it. The "de-identified" data they sell is trivially easy to re-identify. Also, the US government has no qualms about buying it in bulk and using it without a warrant.

In Microsoft's privacy FAQ they say:

In many cases, data collected in relation to your work or school account is owned and controlled by your organization.

As Microsoft notes in their privacy policy:

Enterprise and Developer Products are Microsoft products and related software offered to and designed primarily for use by organizations and developers. ... In the event of a conflict between this Microsoft privacy statement and the terms of any agreement(s) between a customer and Microsoft for Enterprise and Developer Products, the terms of those agreement(s) will control.

However, the usage of your data is dependent on the exact agreement entered into by your organization and Microsoft. At my institution, we maintain full control over all of the data, and I would expect a medical school to do the same. You can usually find more information at the Privacy and Cookies page when you are logged into your institutional account. You can also ask your institution's Office 365 administrator for full details.

Sure, there is the risk that your institution could use your notes against you if some sort of conflict arises. They almost certainly have full and total access to your data. However, I trust my institution to not be miss-using the legitimate notes I'm taking much more than Microsoft.

1

Using a hosted not-taking system is a bad enough idea already:

  • it may stop operating at any moment at the company's discretion (just check out https://killedbygoogle.com)
  • the company may change it at any moment in a way that makes it unusable to you
  • the company will go bust at some point (feel like speculating when?)
  • your notes can be lost in a datacenter fire
  • your notes can be lost to a hacker (deleted or modified, that is, not leaked – I doubt that privacy is much of a concern regarding uni notes; but as you state that privacy is an issue for you, that's even one more reason for you though not relevant for most people)
  • the service may become unavailable at any moment due to a whole host of reasons (DDoS attack on the service, failure of technical infrastructure of the service, you not being able to connect to the internet)
  • if you don't live in the U.S., consider what happens when there is diplomatic conflict (the GitHub repositories of Russians recently got deleted due to diplomatic conflict between the U.S. and Russia)
  • etc., etc.

Carefully consider the fact that you have somewhere between virtually no control and absolutely no control over all of these and consider what losing access to your notes would mean to you at an inconvenient time. Also carefully consider the fact that you will have absolutely no recourse if any of these happen.

Now you're trying to add even more modes of failure by putting your university's mail server admin in charge of your notes. You're also adding another failure mode: At some point, you will lose access to that email account. If you forget to move your notes (if that's even possible and if that's possible by the time you want to move them – remember that features may get scrapped at any time), you might regret that because you will never be able to look at your notes again.

I know that I still sometimes look at the notes I took at a student, and I can rest assured that I will continue to be able to do so because I took them in Emacs via org-mode. If you want to do the same, a hosted note-taking system definitely isn't the way to go for you.

0

This is a decision you need to make for yourself, weighing up the issues discussed below.

Both accounts have the same issues: reliability, security and privacy. But the university’s account has these issues with both the university and the service provider (Microsoft).

On one hand, if the notes are an important part of your course, you might want to use resources provided by the university for those notes. That way, if those resources fail for any reason, you have an organisation to hold responsible. Generally, with a free personal account, the service provider is under no obligation to continue providing the service (at least beyond whatever notice period their terms of use specify), so you do not have such reliability. Of course, a paid personal account is a different matter.

On the other hand, if you do not intend for the university to see these notes (which seems to be the case, based on your question), then you might want to keep them off university systems. This avoids any issues with your privacy, other people’s privacy, and any other legal rights that might apply (such as copyright). In particular, it helps to prevent the notes from being used against you in any dispute with the university, an issue mentioned by other users.

You would still have the privacy issues with the service provider, but you could deal with those by locally encrypting the data before uploading it. This might not be an option for OneNote, but if you can make it work, then there should be no problems. This is true for a university account too, except that they might object to your use of encryption.

Another issue is that the notes are not just part of your course, but also your writing that you should be able to use for whatever purpose you like. For this purpose, you want to ensure reliable personal access to those notes, which suggests that you should either:

  1. ensure that the university account has an effective export mechanism (that you are disciplined enough to use when necessary); or
  2. use your personal account to begin with (but note that if it it is a free account, it still might not be reliable, as discussed above).
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    Thank you! All good points!
    – user161468
    Aug 9 at 11:25
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My question is, how good of an idea is to use my uni's OneNote account and not my personal?

  • MS has access to your notes and can use them to the extent of the contract that either you (personal MS OneNote TOS) or the university (MS Enterprise contract) has signed.
  • Your university is likely to have access to everything you store within their realm because they will have administrative rights. Whether they can/will do it or not depends on the country.

A few other points to take into account

If your notes are closely bound with the MS universe (adding flags for the calendar, attaching Outlook messages, ...) then you are indeed better off with MS OneNote.

Keep in mind, however, that you may be able to efficiently export the notes or not. Best case, they will compatible with your software, worst case they will be PDFs or plain text and you lose all the MS specificities.

Now, if you will have plain notes with references and backlinks, you should seriously consider using a system that stores notes in a text format that is wildly recognized. Markdown is probably the best one today.

  • you can use software such as Obsidian to manage the notes and their interconnections
  • you can store the notes in a more privacy-friendly environment
  • you always have a copy, so even if terrible things happen, you do not need to access your MS account to recover them

I would strongly consider switching to something more portable.

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  • This answer is not clearly laid out. It does not make it clear that it does not answer to the question as posed; rather, it challenges the premise of the question. And it is not clear what the basis for that challenge is. The way it is laid out, the main issue seems to be the type of notes being taken. But the OP has already played around with OneNote and presumably considers it suitable. On what basis do you challenge this? Aug 9 at 12:36
  • @BrianDrake: on the basis that OP is concerned with privacy and legal aspects of his notes. I covered that part in the first two bullets (there is not much more to say without knowing the country and the kind of contract the uni has passed with MS - and I know these contracts very well and how they vary wildly). The second part is an alternative that answers OP concerns. Moreover, I mentioned that the kind of notes they take will influence the answer - "played with" may mean 3 years or 10 minutes.
    – WoJ
    Aug 9 at 12:39
  • There are some good points in this answer, but I object to the way it is presented. The presentation suggests that the dot points discuss secondary issues to be considered under the main issue of the type of notes. It should be the other way around: the main issues are privacy and legal issues, with the type of notes being a secondary issue. I note again that this answer seems to violate one of the most basic rules on Stack Exchange by not answering the question (which is whether to use the university account or the personal account). Aug 9 at 12:52
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    @BrianDrake: ok, fair point. I restructured my answer.
    – WoJ
    Aug 9 at 13:00
-2

Before you use the uni service for this, you should just check that you are permitted to do it. The fact they have exposed one aspect (email) does not necessarily mean they intend you to be able to use the other aspect (note taking). It is possible that they did not intend you to have that part of the service. Or that they don't intend you to have more than some tiny amount of storage or bandwidth etc.

The worst possible consequence is likely to be that they shut off the note taking ability, possibly without warning. Or that you find you can only take some trivial amount of notes, ten pages or some such. Or that they don't retain the notes past some not-very-useful time, like one week or some such. Or various other highly annoying restrictions that could easily interfere with your use of the service as you thought you could.

So check first.

Meantime, consider an ordinary dead-tree-paper notebook in addition to electronic note taking. It is only my personal process. But I prefer to take notes on paper, then transcribe them to an electronic format. The transcription process is very often a very useful learning process. I uncover parts of the material I did not understand, and I "burn in" the material when I go over it again.

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    It seems unlikely that the university made a mistake here, but it is possible, and either way, the remaining paragraphs of this answer would still be valid. Why does it have a score of −3? Aug 9 at 10:36
  • @BrianDrake uni emails almost always come with an Office365 subscription (at least if the uni has a deal with MS, which most do and is the case here). There are limits on storage enforced by MS on part of the uni, which are obvious to view from OneDrive, but otherwise this answer just demonstrates a lack of awareness of how uni accounts work. Aug 9 at 11:37
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    @TamoghnaChowdhury The agreement is between the university and Microsoft, and making assumptions about it from the outside seems dangerous. That seems to be the general theme of other answers and comments here. In particular, there is a dispute in the comments on Buffy’s answer about whether Microsoft can use the data for marketing. If this is not well-established, then what else might be different between accounts or between agreements? Aug 9 at 11:44
  • @BrianDrake My point was that the OP is allowed to take notes with their uni account, there's no questions about it. The question is whether the OP should take notes with their uni account. This answer disputes the premise of the question, which is not super useful. Aug 9 at 11:51

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