Let’s be blunt: There’s absolutely no excuse for the university’s mishandling of students’ Social Security numbers in the McKinley Building. The boxes, which an AU student found last week next to containers filled with trash, had been sitting in the hallway for an unspecified amount of time, with only a piece of printer paper protecting students’ personal information from misuse.
Clearly, the university is guilty of negligence on quite a few counts. Not only do federal laws (and simple common sense) dictate that private records ought to stay that way, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires colleges to destroy students’ records five years after they graduate. Since an unknown number of the documents in the unsecured boxes belonged to students who have long since departed AU, the university seems to be in violation of federal law. And at a time when AU is the beleaguered subject of legal scrutiny, the Social Security-number scandal is immensely distressing.
Simply put, the university needs to take this time to re-examine how it handles and stores confidential information. Our dissatisfaction with AU aside, this is not the first breach of privacy to threaten college students’ personal records. Just this past winter break, for example, an intruder stole a hard drive from Georgetown University containing nearly 38,000 Social Security numbers. The information, which the university has yet to recover, may not have been encrypted or password protected - an unacceptable security blunder.
Hindsight is 20/20, to be sure, and Georgetown made its security breach public only two days ago, but it shouldn’t take a catastrophe for AU to reexamine how it handles confidential information. Labeling a privacy blunder an “isolated incident” is counterintuitive and disgraceful.
In the coming weeks, AU needs to put forth double the effort to assuage students’ security concerns. That means notifying every student whose information was exposed, checking the status of the university’s other records and determining why the information was neglected in the first place. The last thing students need this semester is a roundabout, secretive investigation, not to mention an excuse for what many would agree was completely inexcusable behavior.