School Data Breaches Leave Young Children Vulnerable

Your child’s school is required to track each student for a variety of reasons, such as offering free federally-subsidized meals and for charting educational progress. This places a wealth of personal information into the hands of schools — from birth certificates and Social Security numbers, to immunization records and IQ test results. 

For information to be useful, it must be shared. Unfortunately, the more it is shared, the more opportunities there are for data security breaches. Your child’s information is floating between school district personnel, teachers, administrative assistants and school nurses.

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During the 2013-14 school year multiple instances of student data breaches have been reported:

  • Midland, Texas—The names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of 14,000 students were on the hard drive of a laptop stolen from a district administrator’s car.
  • Chesterfield, Virginia—130 elementary school students were sent home with the personal information of other students including Social Security numbers, birth dates and birth certificate numbers.
  • Chicago—The names, birth dates and identification numbers of 2,000 students were posted online after the children took a free vision exam at school.
  • Denver—Confidential medical records were on a thumb drive stolen from the car of a school nurse.
  • Louden County, Virginia—A third party vendor accidentally exposed information online including the names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and birth places of students. Every school was involved, with the potential to impact 71,000 students.
  • Miami—The FBI reports that a school food service worker and co-conspirators used student Social Security numbers to file about 400 phony tax returns (U.S. vs. Rhim-Grant, et al.)

When the information of students is compromised it may take years for they and their families to realize the fallout.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends that you be proactive about your child’s information, “Don’t share your child’s Social Security number unless you know and trust the other party. Ask why it’s necessary and how it will be protected. Ask if you can use a different identifier, or use only the last four digits of your child’s Social Security number.”

In the Miami case cited above, if the school district had assigned identifying numbers to the students instead of using Social security numbers, the children would not have been victimized.

United States Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer filed charges against 25 defendants in the Miami area for filing false tax refunds, including the cases involving students. He stated, “These cases serve as a reminder that each and every one of us is a potential victim. While we have a talented and effective team dedicated to fight this fraud, we need everyone—both taxpayers and institutions—to remain vigilant in safeguarding personal identifying information. Protect it as if it were a trade secret.”

As a parent, you have the right to review your child’s school record. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) grants you access. Check your child’s file for sensitive information and ask for the Social Security number to be removed. Do not provide it in the future.

Protect your children by monitoring their identity as closely as you monitor your own.

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