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The Resource Center Child Identity Theft & Protection | post

Identity Theft from School Databases Should Be Parents’ Major Worry

by Steve Schwartz on

When Asked for Your Child's SSN, Consider Just Saying 'No'

Identity theft by hackers of the databases of schools and school systems should be a major parental worry. That is why, if you are registering a child for the first time and are asked to provide their Social Security number, you should seriously consider just saying no.

The basic question is does your child's school really need your child's Social Security number. If you ask why, the answer you get may be because your kid's school is required to collect it by the school district, or by the state educational system. If you ask the school district the same question, the response likely will be because we are required by the state Board of Education or whatever your state's highest education administration is called.

Ask the question of them and inevitable the eventual response will be along the lines of the Federal Government (usually the U.S. Department of Education) requires we collect it. But if you ask the Education Department, they will tell you that not only do they not require it; they actively discourage schools from collecting student Social Security numbers, and especially using them as identifiers.

In an in-depth study of the practice of schools collecting student SSNs, the Social Security Administration's Inspector General Patrick P. O'Carroll, Jr., in 2010 found:

Despite the increasing threat of identity theft, our review of State laws and school policies and practices disclosed that K-12 schools' collection and use of SSNs was widespread. We determined that many K-12 schools used SSNs as the primary student identifier or for other purposes, even when another identifier would have sufficed.

What Inspector General O'Carroll found was that because of the danger of identity theft no federal law or regulation affirmatively requires schools to collect students' Social Security numbers; but then no federal law or regulation forbids them from doing so either. What the federal regulations do require is that if this information is gathered, it must be safeguarded and the dissemination of all or part of a student's record is regulated by various privacy laws. But, of course, there are no specific requirements for the degree of safeguarding.

Finally he concluded:

There has been a growing trend among State Departments of Education to establish longitudinal databases, which may include SSNs, of K-12 children in a State to track students' progress over time. While some State laws may require that K-12 schools collect SSNs in some instances, we believe some do so as a matter of convenience—because SSNs are unique identifiers and most students have an SSN. However, we do not believe administrative convenience should ever be more important than safeguarding children's personal information.

We believe the unnecessary collection and use of SSNs is a significant vulnerability for this young population.

I could write at length detailing the numbers of times that school or school district databases have been hacked. So you have to assume you are exposing your child's SSN if you give it at registration. But then, what should you do?

My best advice is to ask questions. Why do they need it? The answer you might get is some form of "the state (or Federal government) requires us to. If your child is in the federally financed free school lunch program (authorized under the National School Lunch Act) that may be true, but absent that there is no Federal requirement for a Social Security number. If they say the "state" requires it, press them as to why. Ask if the state, or the school itself, doesn't supply its own identifier. If it does, then why is the Social Security number required?

The use of Social Security numbers has a place - employment obviously - or in credit granting and credit reporting. But your child's school does not need student SSNs for credit reporting purposes.

I believe you should supply our children's Social Security numbers if the school is able to show a compelling reason for it. An example would be if the student is enrolled in a Federal government paid free breakfast or lunch program.

The school's convenience is not a compelling reason. You might want to adopt this approach. What it comes down to is simply asking why, and if the answer you get is not satisfactory, then just say No!