End of School Privacy Alert

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

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ACLU of Maine
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MCLU Concerned About Social Security Number Collection

CONTACT: media@aclu.org

Portland – Today, the MCLU responded to end-of-school-year instructions from the Maine Department of Education to school districts initiating a controversial Social Security number collection policy. 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. Today, the MCLU accused the Department of not living up to its end of the bargain.

A recent letter from the Education Commissioner to all Maine Superintendents includes six paragraphs on the benefits of collecting and analyzing Social Security numbers, followed by a one-sentence statement that disclosure of the numbers by parents is not required. The authorizing statute, 20 M.R.S.A. §6005(3) states, however, that the parental notification must include an “explanation,” and as Maine students are hopefully learning in school, a plain statement is not an explanation.

“A proper explanation would be aimed at ensuring that parents have appropriate information to make a decision,” said MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden. “Overuse of Social Security numbers can lead to identity theft and other privacy violations. Furthermore, children who are homeless or whose parents are undocumented immigrants have an absolute right to a public education, and they need to know that the lack of a Social Security number is not a barrier to attending school.”

In its letter to the Department, the MCLU quotes a publication from the Social Security Administration, “Identity Theft And Your Social Security Number,” as an example of what should be included in a proper explanation. The publication notes, “You should be careful about sharing your number, even when asked for it.” The MCLU expressed concern that, without an full explanation, schools and parents would be confused about whether disclosure was a requirement.

“Privacy is a fundamental constitutional right,” said MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows. ” Parents should think long and hard before handing over their children’s social security numbers for this new tracking program.”

The debate over the Social Security law was heated. Proponent and former Education Commissioner Susan Gendron testified that tracking students 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, noting that government agencies are not immune from security breaches and that disclosure of Social Security numbers would leave students vulnerable to identity theft. 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.

Social Security number collection is expected to take place over the summer, as parents fill out forms before the start of the new school year. The MCLU letter urges the Department will take steps quickly to explain the new law to schools and parents. In the meantime, the MCLU is contacting schools and alerting parents through its networks of their privacy rights under the law. The MCLU letter to the Department of Education is available upon request.

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