US campuses act to avoid violation of privacy laws

May 8, 1998

For years, American universities and colleges have made more and more information about their students available online: class schedules, addresses, telephone numbers, photographs and even grades.

Now many schools are worried this proliferation violates strict educational privacy laws pre-dating the Internet, and have taken steps to limit access previously advertised as a convenience.

"A lot of institutions have tried to avoid this, but sooner or later we all are going to have to buckle down," said Helen Samuels, former archivist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She led a precedent-setting year-long study of the problem and proposed policies for MIT allowing faculty and students to request that personal and academic information not be made available online. "It's such a two-edged sword," Ms. Samuels said. "Web access has transformed education. Then one has to look at the other side of this issue, especially in the United States, where we have a law that tries to control access to student information."

The US Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 protects the privacy of academic records. Some college and university officials have interpreted it to to mean that they cannot even disclose a student's campus address or telephone number without permission. Yet most campus Web sites list campus and email addresses, telephone numbers, home towns and area of major study with no controls on access.

Others with sophisticated information systems, including MIT, post lists of students enrolled in particular courses, schedules of lectures and exams, reading assignments, online class discussions and papers submitted for credit.

"We haven't really thought out our policies and we're not carrying them forward in a uniform way in this new electronic environment," Ms Samuels said.

Technology exists to limit access, she said. Some schools already block their online campus directories except to their own faculty and students, for example. Others assign random passwords to give students electronic access to their grades.

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