Personal data request from state ill-advised

By Russ Van ArsdaleExecutive Director Northeast Contact, Special to the BDN
Posted Oct. 03, 2010, at 7:12 p.m.

At Northeast CONTACT, we applaud government when it acts in what we consider consumers’ best interests. We’re also not bashful about blasting government officials who fall short.

Maine’s Department of Education is in our sights for its on-again, off-again request to the state’s schools to hand over students’ Social Security numbers that they have collected. Last week, the department told the schools to hold onto the numbers for now.

It’s not the first time the department has put the brakes on an ill-advised notion that tracking student progress is best done by gathering up kids’ Social Security numbers. In our view, the department should put this bad idea on the scrap heap where it belongs.

The controversial collection effort hit the headlines again last week when a technology director from one school district made a troubling discovery: He could see the Social Security numbers of employees of other school districts.

When he found the problem, the director was looking at something called the Infinite Campus information portal on the department’s website. He was viewing an area separate from that which contains student information.

No harm was done. The director called the appropriate people, alerting them to the security loophole, and the department closed it right away. Education Commissioner Angela Faherty says everyone in her department is not brushing aside concerns of critics.

“The department takes the security of private information seriously and supports school boards, parents and school officials in their caution with respect to the collection of data,” Faherty said in a statement. The department is deleting numbers it has collected so far and hiring an outside consultant to figure out what went wrong.

The department has said that, while it is asking school districts to provide Social Security numbers, it is entirely within parents’ rights to refuse. A number of school boards have voted against complying with the department’s request for students’ numbers. Many parents and educators have strongly opposed the idea.

Education department officials say the numbers are the most effective way of tracking student progress through school and beyond, as graduates enter the work force. The department collects a variety of information about Maine students each Oct. 1. It was planning to add Social Security numbers starting this past Friday.

The Maine Civil Liberties Union has been most outspoken in questioning the department’s strategy. On its website, the MCLU calls the recent viewing incident “a strong reminder of the need for us all to take responsibility for protecting our own personal information.”

That’s one message we have been preaching since our inception. Keeping our personal information secure is a 24-7 job, and we should be teaching our children — at home and at school — the importance of doing just that. A mixed message by the department of “give us your major identifier, sometime soon … or not” does little to help teach this important lesson.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/10/03/business/personal-data-request-from-state-illadvised/ printed on September 17, 2014