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Is Your College Careful With Your Personal Data? How to Tell

Aug 15, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

College students, as a group, are much more vulnerable to identity theft than the general population. Part of the reason for this is that traditional college students, often on their own for the first time, have less experience managing their personal information and tend to make themselves more vulnerable as a result. But it’s not all the college student’s fault.

The school can also be to blame—and students at some schools are vulnerable to identity theft regardless of their age or experience level. That’s because some colleges are less careful than others about safeguarding the personal data they collect from students. Here are a few ways to tell if your school is lax in assuring the privacy of your personal information.

They use your social security number as your ID

Believe it or not, this is an accepted practice at some colleges. If your college puts your social security number on your student card, your class registration papers, publicly posted grades, or other places where others can get easy access, it isn’t careful with your data. If your school does this, request a different assigned number.

Confidential

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It’s easy to break into your school mailbox

At some schools, mailboxes don’t have particularly secure locking mechanisms—and it might be possible to break in without a key. Still, most students have sensitive documents sent to their school address—including legal and bank documents. If it’s easy to pick the lock on your school mailbox, don’t have sensitive mail sent there—use your parents’ address instead, or get a PO box at the local post office.

Campus mailboxes are unsecured

Outgoing post office mail is dropped into a highly secure mailbox—just try breaking into one of those things. At some colleges, however, outgoing mail is just dropped into an open box or container. This makes it easier for identity thieves to steal important information you’re sending out. If your college doesn’t offer a secure way to send mail, use a post office mailbox off campus.

They don’t have a privacy policy

All colleges collect a certain amount of personal data from its students, for a variety of reasons—including academic reporting, administration, and keeping track of grades. But that doesn’t mean they should do it with impunity. Many colleges have a privacy policy outlining what data they collect, how they use it, and students’ rights concerning it. If your college doesn’t have a privacy policy, chances are it doesn’t put a high priority on data protection.

They conduct studies using personal information

This may be difficult to find out—or it could be all over the news, as it was with Harvard’s recent Facebook faux pas. In 2006, Harvard researchers started collecting a vast amount of social science data over Facebook and Twitter, downloading over 1,700 profiles from Harvard’s class of 2009 and publicly releasing the data two years later, with the intention of sharing it with researchers at other schools.

The problem? None of the students whose profiles were collected in the study had given their permission—or were even informed that they had been downloaded. Chances are that if your school conducts studies that draw on student information collected without knowledge or permission, it is not particularly careful about student data in other areas in general.

Protecting your data in college isn’t easy. Some of it is common sense—shred your documents, don’t leave sensitive information out in your dorm room, and don’t use public computers to pay bills or access your bank account. But some of it involves the way your school treats your data. Keep an eye out for egregious practices—and don’t hesitate to speak up if you find them. If colleges know their students are aware of the way they use data and are vigilant about their privacy, they will be less likely to exploit student data or make it vulnerable.

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