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Thursday, May 23, 2024

How a question about prom tickets was sent to 18,000 UW-Madison students

Unsuspecting students received an email with a student inquiry about the availability of prom tickets. UW-Madison said the email group “worked as configured.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison information technology staff said they’re making changes to student email groups after approximately 18,000 University of Wisconsin-Madison juniors and seniors received a mass email about prom tickets.

The email, sent from a student with the subject line "Prom tickets" late at night on April 8, appeared to be a student asking how to purchase tickets for the Senior Prom hosted Saturday at the Discovery Building.

“Hi there not sure if this is the right email for this inquiry but I was wondering if there is any way possible to still buy a prom ticket!?” the student said in the email.

The mistake quickly garnered replies from more than 15 students who chose to reply to all, culminating in a flurry of notifications and emails for 18,000 students again. Replies ranged from “wrong person lol” to “I don't sell prom tickets. Good luck.”

The email was due to student error in Google Groups, Mary Evansen, communications director for UW-Madison’s Division of Information Technology, told the Cardinal in an email.

Google Groups, a service provided through UW-Madison’s Google Workspace for Education package, provides a messaging platform to post messages across different groups.

“Google Groups are intended to enable effective campus communication for students, faculty and staff within the technical constraints provided by our email system,” Evansen said.

Although students are part of a number of groups, including their school, classes, general graduation classes and all-student groups, the student’s email was sent to the group, which includes juniors and seniors by credit standing. 

To send a mass email to the 2024_juniorsandseniors group, a student would have to click on the group and select “new conversation.” From there, they could write the email and hit send, emailing more than 18,000 students. It’s unclear how the student gained access to the group.

Evansen said the group “worked as configured.”

“Following this event our email team will review and enhance our documentation and instructions to aid individuals when configuring Google Groups,” Evansen said. “Senders are responsible for adhering to the appropriate use guidelines of our university email tool.”

Non-administrators could still send messages to a group titled “uwofficial-all-students” as of Wednesday evening, per email permissions reviewed by the Cardinal. The group is regularly used by the UW-Madison Police Department and University Communications to send mass emails.

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The guidelines, listed on the UW-Madison website, specify the service “is intended to be used for email distribution and permissions within UW-Madison Google Workspace,” and it is not “to be used for unsolicited bulk email or marketing email.”

When forming a Google Group, Evansen said, the creator can choose the posting security. These four options range from just group administrators having posting power, the current configuration of the “allstudents” group, to granting non-members posting power.

The student did not respond to a request for comment.

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Jasper Bernstein

Jasper Bernstein is the Associate News Editor for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @jasperberns.

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