MCLU Concerned About Overuse of Social Security Numbers

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
August 11, 2010 12:00 am

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Recommends Caution to School Districts Across the State


Today, the MCLU advised Maine’s public school superintendents to supplement their annual privacy notifications to parents with an additional explanation of the risks associated with social security numbers. The letter was sent in response to an Administrative Letter from the Maine Department of Education to school districts initiating a controversial Social Security number collection policy. That letter contains its own recommended language, which the Maine Civil Liberties Union feels does not go far enough.

In 2009, the Maine Department of Education sought authority to request Social Security numbers from all students enrolled in Maine schools, in order to conduct a longitudinal data study. The Legislature agreed, but only on the condition that the Department explain to parents that disclosure of the numbers is optional, and that the numbers would not be used for the study unless parents (or students over 18) provide written consent. To this end, the Department’s suggested language includes four short sentences as an explanation, following six paragraphs explaining the benefits of social security number collection.

“The statute says that the parental notification must include an ‘explanation,'” said MCLU Field Director Brianna Twofoot, “but the Department’s suggested language does not go far enough. Without an explicit description of the potential for loss of privacy and identity theft, parents and students cannot make an informed decision about participation in this voluntary program.”

At the beginning of each school year, schools are required to inform parents of students’ privacy rights under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In a letter to superintendents (see attached), the MCLU urged superintendents to include language in this yearly notice that thoroughly explains a students’ right to privacy, the risks associated with sharing your social security number and the voluntary nature of the Department’s program.

“Even the most secure databases are subject to breach, and theft of social security numbers can lead to identity theft,” said MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows. “A proper explanation would inform parents of privacy risks associated with social security numbers and the benefits of keeping our most personal information private.”

The debate over the Social Security law was heated, and it continues still. Over the summer, RSU #44 passed a resolution urging the Maine legislature to repeal the law, citing the Veteran’s Affairs Administration security breach of 26.5 million social security numbers when a disc containing sensitive information was stolen in 2006. The MCLU has urged other school committees to consider similar action.

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