Sunday, March 27, 2011

College Newspaper Reveals Privacy Violations

By Andrew Drea
Junior Jackie Deskovich spent the past semester abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece. While she walked the streets of the city and focused on her studies, private information including her social security number and Monmouth transcripts were available on the Monmouth network for any incoming or current student or faculty member to view.

Due to a wrongfully clicked security option on a directory on the school’s public folders system, anyone with a Monmouth College email address could log in to see any study abroad applicant’s entire application instead of a preselected list that was created but not activated. The applications included professor recommendations, transcripts, grade point averages, home addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers. All applicants who had applied to go off campus from 2008 to those applying for next year were open for public consumption, including those who were denied the chance to go.

“It was an honest error,” said Vice President for Student Life Jacquelyn Condon. “It was believed that only certain people had access to this and that it was not available to just anybody who wanted to look at it. We feel terrible about it.”

The problem was brought to the attention of the Office of Student Affairs on Monday after an investigation by the the staff of the Monmouth College newspaper The Courier. Applications for Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 were promptly deleted but the majority of applications from years past were still available. Those documents were closed to student access by Tuesday night and apology emails were sent out to affected students on Wednesday. However some, like Deskovich, are upset with the entire issue.

“That’s not really OK,” Deskovich said. “I would not like that on the internet. The fact that my social is on there is not OK. There’s no academic reason to have my social security anywhere on your website. None. Transcripts, that’s an academic thing that nobody can steal my identity from.”

While applications for off campus study often require a social security number on the cover sheet of the application, Monmouth College’s official transcripts only list the last four digits of a social security number, questioning the need for such an important number to be required for an application.

“I don’t trust anybody at this school enough to give them my social security number,” said Deskovich. “I don’t care; look at my grades. You’re my professors, you can see my grades but the only other people that ought to know my social security number are my parents. Other than that, no one needs to know that unless I’m filling out an application or something.”

An underlying issue is a violation of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Students are protected from having their documents released to anyone other than faculty and staff. Students must even sign a form to allow parental access to files.

“Only people with legitimate educational interests should have access to information that’s in a student’s file,” said Condon. “And a file is either the paper or the electronic.”

Condon explained that legally, a school that violates FERPA could be fined through the withholding of federal financial aid. Normally, schools are alerted to FERPA violations by the Department of Education and are only fined if no action is taken to correct the violation, so Monmouth College will not be fined or even required to report the offense to the federal government. In addition, legal action cannot be brought against individuals at a school.

“This is not something that someone has done maliciously,” said Condon. “This is clearly an error.”

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