Brewer school officials warn of identity theft

Posted Aug. 16, 2010, at 10:39 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — Local school officials, worried about the possibility of identity theft, are encouraging parents not to provide their children’s Social Security numbers to the state so the students can be tracked as they leave school and get jobs.

“We’re required to ask but we’re encouraging parents not to tell,” Superintendent Daniel Lee said on Monday.

School departments across the state are required by a new state law to collect students’ Social Security numbers for all enrolled this fall. Parents, however, should know that they can decline, Lee said.

“I would strongly encourage parents not to provide Social Security numbers,” said Mark Farley, Brewer School Committee chairman. “I just think it’s wrong.”

“I feel there is enough personal intrusion in our society,” he added later.

School board members unanimously endorsed a resolve that advises “parents protect their child’s privacy by refusing to provide the school with their child’s Social Security number … [and] requests that the Maine Legislature rescind Public Law Chapter 448 in the next legislative session.”

The Department of Education plans to use the data collected to conduct a longitudinal data study that will follow students for 12 years, tracking their progress throughout school and afterward, Lee said.

The study is worthwhile, he said, but using Social Security numbers to track students is unwise.

When students move, for example, their records are mailed to their new school district, which means “you really don’t know who is getting access to Social Security numbers,” Lee said. “It’s not just in the computer. It’s on paper.”

There are several national examples of security breaches involving Social Security numbers.

“There are dangers out there,” said Amanda Bost, vice chairwoman, who said she has firsthand knowledge of a security breach concerning a student loan.

Members of the Maine Civil Liberties Union voiced opposition to the law when state legislators were creating it and now feel that the Department of Education isn’t doing enough to educate parents about students’ right to privacy and the risks associated with sharing Social Security numbers.

“Even the most secure databases are subject to breach, and theft of Social Security numbers can lead to identity theft,” Shenna Bellows, MCLU executive director, said in a statement issued last week. “A proper explanation would inform parents of privacy risks associated with Social Security numbers and the benefits of keeping our most personal information private.”

SAD 63 representative Donald Varnum of Holden requested a copy of Brewer’s resolve after the board’s vote. He said if a kindergartner’s identity is stolen, “they won’t know that number is pilfered until they get into the work force.”

Lee urged other school committees to consider similar action. He said the Bethel School Board already has passed a resolution asking the Legislature to repeal the law. Lewiston School Department officials have said they will follow the law and ask for the numbers, but like Brewer will advise parents not to give them out.

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