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End privacy conflicts, offer FERPA training to university employees

Arizona Summer Wildcat
August 9, 1999
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editor@wildcat.arizona.edu

It could have happened again.

Last year, the UA illegally released thousands of student, faculty and staff Social Security numbers to two outside companies, prompting a campus outcry and public embarrassment for those responsible.

After UA officials ordered the numbers retracted from MCI Telecommunications Corp. and Saguaro Credit Union, policies changed, watchdog committees were formed and UA President Peter Likins apologized for the release.

Thankfully, the damage was minimal. The most the release did was raise awareness of federal privacy laws and force administrators to realize that disregarding the importance of students' personal information is wrong.

However, despite promises of reform, the problem has resurfaced.

This time, a UA Associated Students Bookstore employee could have taken the fall for a mistake she didn't even know she was making.

The bookstore director acknowledged last week that one of his employees requested SSNs from campus club members. The employee asked UA club presidents to gather the last four digits of their members' SSNs and give them to the bookstore for a contest to promote early textbook ordering.

While the idea was based on an innocent marketing strategy and no numbers were submitted before the request was retracted, it shows that UA employees are still unprepared to handle the massive legal implications of the 1974 Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Despite promises of instruction for university employees, it appears that many remain ignorant to the importance of student privacy.

Associated Students President Cisco Aguilar ran damage control, saying "the whole bookstore has learned from this," while bookstore Director Frank Farias said "she (the employee) wasn't aware of this, even though she should be very sensitive (with use of SSNs)."

But the impact of FERPA violations go far beyond sensitivity. As we have stated in this space before, people's lives are on the line.

As high-tech stalking becomes more rampant, UA students need to know that an ex-spouse or enraged family member won't gain access to their private information. Social Security numbers can open up doors to home addresses and countless other records that hackers can access with one mouse click.

Granted, the bookstore's contest probably would not have resulted in a student stalking case. In fact, the bookstore situation is only an example of an overall problem -- the UA has not trained their employees to deal with students' private information.

Therefore, it appears the time has come to institute mandatory training for all UA employees.

A UA attorney, perhaps the resident privacy oracle Mike Proctor, could teach groups of employees about FERPA, Social Security numbers and students' rights.

The employees -- including everyone from Likins down to university police officers -- would sit down for an hour and listen to the importance of privacy and the dangers of even the smallest oversights.

It's not as hard as UA officials would like to make it sound. Send out e-mails and post announcements in departments so employees can select a time for their session.

Then make sure the lecture doesn't put them to sleep. Show them videos and exhibits. Just make it brutally clear -- while it's not the Armageddon, lives are on the line.

The costs are minimal. The peace of mind for students is invaluable.