Arizona Daily Wildcat March 25, 1998
Sanctions for info. release not likely
Even though UA officials admitted they "probably" violated the law by releasing student and employee Social Security numbers to private firms, the heavy hand of the law will not crash down on the UA any time soon, federal officials said yesterday.
In an effort to streamline the activation of some services tied to the University of Arizona's new identification cards, officials released student, staff and faculty Social Security numbers to Saguaro Credit Union and MCI Telecommunications Corp.
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prohibits universities from releasing "personally identifiable information" without students' consent.
"It appears the university is aware of the apparent problem of compliance," U.S. Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said yesterday. "The fact that the university legal staff has recognized the problem - that's a first step in the right direction."
Once privacy concerns were aired to university officials, administrators took steps to retrieve the data from the companies and offer the use of randomly generated identification numbers by request.
"We only get involved if we receive letters," Bradshaw said.
But he hasn't received any letters. Even if the Department of Education was swamped with complaints from angry students and faculty, a team of federal agents in suits and sunglasses would not be sent to the UA.
"When a violation of FERPA occurs, we show schools how to come into compliance with the act," Bradshaw said. "Traditionally, we've always been able to work out problems by showing schools how to meet the act and protect the privacy of student records."
The Department of Education has the power to cut funding to schools that repeatedly violate FERPA, but Bradshaw said funding cuts are an "ultimate penalty" imposed only if schools steadfastly refuse to comply with the law.
Terrence Bressi, the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory engineer who uncovered the privacy problem concerning the CatCard, said he expected the nonchalant reaction from the government.
"The Family Compliance Office's main purpose is not to sue the university or withhold funding on a first-time basis," Bressi said. "The government's main concern would be to get compliance."
Bressi said he did not expect the government to immediately jump down the university's throat.
"It wouldn't surprise me that they don't have an official thought," he said.