MCLU Issues Back-to-School Privacy Alert

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
August 31, 2009 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


The Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation says students and parents do not have to provide social security numbers to public schools when asked.

A Maine law passed this spring, An Act To Improve the Ability of the Department of Education To Conduct Longitudinal Data Studies, allows the Maine Department of Education to collect and use students’ social security numbers for tracking performance before and after graduation. The database is intended to link student information between the Maine Department of Education and Maine Department of Labor.

An important provision of the law establishes an opt-in program. Under the opt-in program, parents are not required to provide social security numbers to schools, but rather they may choose to participate. In 1974, Congress passed the Privacy Act (Public Law 93-579), finding that the right to privacy is a personal and fundamental right protected by the US Constitution and when government agencies collect, use, and disseminate private information, privacy is put at risk. In accordance with these findings, LD 1356 specifies that school administrations must notify parents that providing private information, such as students’ social security numbers, is optional.

“The right to privacy is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation. “In the interest of student privacy and to remain compliant with the law, schools must inform parents that this is an opt-in system. Parents do not have to provide private sensitive information about their children.”

The debate over LD 1356 was heated. Proponent Commissioner Susan Gendron said in her testimony that tracking data using social security numbers is “essential for evaluating the effectiveness of education programs and curriculum in impacting postsecondary and labor market outcomes.”

Opponents, including teachers, superintendents, parents and advocacy groups, highlighted the privacy risks with tracking student and worker data using social security numbers. Government agencies are not immune to security breaches. In 2006, the Veteran’s Affairs Administration was blamed for the theft of 26.5 million social security numbers when a disc containing sensitive information was stolen. Breach of information like the social security number would leave students vulnerable to identity theft or worse. Parents and students noted how tracking student data, including incidents of prohibited behavior, with a social security number could have a negative effect, as Congress noted, on students’ ability to obtain housing, employment, or credit. Noting these concerns, schools must ask parents to think long and hard before handing over children’s social security numbers.

“I work with students every day and support their right to succeed,” said Scott McFarland, principal at Mt. Desert Elementary School. “Attaching a 7-year-old’s achievement and discipline information to his social security number is an unfair and unjust violation of her privacy. We need to be advocates for children in a way that will protect their right to privacy and the unnecessary sharing of privileged information. I would encourage all administrators in Maine to let parents know they don’t have to put their children’s privacy at risk like this.”

“Every parent must know this is an opt-in program,” said Brianna Twofoot, Field Organizer for the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation. “The onus lies with the schools to disseminate accurate information about the program and ensure Maine students’ privacy is protected.”

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release