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What Can I Do About Poorly Handled Data Theft? 53

Embarrassed UTA Alumnus writes "My former college, the University of Texas at Arlington, just made the now-all-to-common announcement that student data — including Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grades, and other information — were on several recently stolen personal computers. The computers were from the home of a Computer Science lecturer, and perhaps more worrisome was the fact that they were the only stolen items in the incident. I had the displeasure of taking one of the lecturer's courses a few years ago, and anyone from his courses since the year 2000 is affected. In response, UTA is providing free 90-day 'fraud monitoring' (not full credit reports), and no disciplinary action has been taken against the lecturer who lost the data." In situations like this, what can a student do when a large institution loses critical private information, makes only a token effort to fix the problem, and lets the people involved continue in practices that may make a similar, or more serious breach occur in the future?
"The data was not encrypted. The lecturer in question is one of the CS faculty at UTA who all conveniently guarded one another, so I guess I shouldn't expect more from him in that area. More importantly though, no one should have had this data on their personal computers, and Social Security numbers should not have been included at all. Furthermore, even without the concern of theft, I seriously question the need for years-old private student data. It is suspicious at the very least.

The UTA PR department is already trying to bury the issue with vague claims of new efforts to hire a system-wide CIO who would be responsible for all 15 UT system campuses. The lecturer in question responded to the student newspaper with 'no comment' each time they attempt to interview him.

I feel like the university should do more, including seeking disciplinary action against all involved. What can I do, short of keeping an eye on my credit and letting the school get away with yet another blunder?"
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What Can I Do About Poorly Handled Data Theft?

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  • Obviously (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rob T Firefly ( 844560 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @01:49PM (#16855048) Homepage Journal
    Give them fake info when you sign up to college. As an added bonus, you'll never have to pay off that student loan.

    Only downside is eventually having to explain the diploma in the name of "Nospamplease Fuckoff" proudly displayed on your wall.
  • by kabocox ( 199019 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @01:50PM (#16855072)
    Um, Joe Random PHd Professor should only need your name and student ID number, which shouldn't be your SSN. I'd be more ticked off that the university was handing out your SSN to all the professors of the classes that you've taken. I wouldn't trust my major field advisor, I wouldn't trust many general ed. professors that I had to take. They don't need that information. They need your name and a university assigned ID number. Only a few people in admin. really need your SSN and they should be able to look it up by your Student ID number.
    • Exactly, firing the professor? What for. It is the responsibility of IT to make sure there is a responsible security policy. If the general policy is to give the professors all this information on a laptop that they carry around its bad IT policy. Yes the professor lost a laptop, and maybe he should have to pay for it, or whatnot, not really your call, and a whole different issue.
      • The sad thing is, this was a CS professor. If anyone should realize they should have that stuff in an encrypted file/partition, it's a CS professor.

        But you are exactly right, they should never use SSNs as student ID's, and there should be an IT policy to keep that stuff encrypted for all the other professors in other departments who are unlikely to be as clued in to computer security as this CS professor SHOULD have been.
    • by maxume ( 22995 )
      It isn't even people that need your SSN if you want to get pedantic, it's certain processes(or maybe some better word...).
    • by toddbu ( 748790 )
      Having taught in college myself, I never liked having student SSNs which was used as a student ID. In fact, I was pretty unhappy that my campus ID badge had my SSN printed boldly on the front. After someone lifted my credit card info and ran up a bill for $15K, I started my cleanup of private information. I sent an email to HR and asked them how I could get my SSN removed from my ID. They issued a new number and then I picked up my new ID at the campus security office. At some point they realized the r
    • I'd be more ticked off that the university was handing out your SSN to all the professors of the classes that you've taken.

      It's worse than that. I'm currently a UTA grad student. Until this year, UTA student IDs were the same as your SSN, unless you specifically requested a different number. Starting in the summer session of 2006, all new student IDs are now a 10-digit number unrelated to your SSN. So until this year, UTA professors had to have access to SSNs because there was no other way to do it. Don't

    • I think they are VERY, VERY slowly changing it, but at my University it was your student ID number. You could go through an overly complicated process to change it to a randomly assigned number, but that was 100% guaranteed to screw up your financial aid, course registrations, etc. so no one did it. Absolutely moronic system, but that's kinda the school's hallmark.
    • by Kamots ( 321174 )
      I attended this school and had this professor.

      Anyways, to address your concerns...

      The school had until very very recently (ie, '06 I think) had the standard practice of using SSNs as student IDs and made it a rather difficult prolonged process to get an alternative ID (I know, I tried, I gave up). This would be why SSNs are included in the stolen records. Blame the school in this case, not the prof.

      Additionally, from my understanding, professors are supposed to be keeping grades for at least 5 years follo
    • I believe the universitys are forbidden by law to use your SSN as an identifier. I know the ones in California are. Well at least the community college system I took a few courses at was.
  • It's a hell of a lot more than most places do when this sort of data is breached.

    Short of screaming and crying at the top of your voice, there is nothing you can do.
    • You can ALWAYS sue.

      Whether it will be worth the time and money involved, well, that is another question.

  • IANAL but... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rueger ( 210566 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @01:58PM (#16855210) Homepage
    ... would suggest that you hire a lawyer. You can bet that the college did.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MBCook ( 132727 )

      I agree, see if you can get a case. See if you can get it class action. Breach of privacy, lack of due diligence, there has got to be more than a few regulations that were broken. When I worked as a student aid at my college I had to sign paperwork and read some laws about how to handle student data to prevent all this kind of stuff. He should be liable under those laws (as should the school).

      I'm not a lawyer, but I bet you can find one that will take your case.

      School respond to two things: lawyers and mo

      • by Pulsar ( 4287 )
        I think this is a great idea; check out my comment below, d =16858478 [] - UTA knew about the dangers, and had accidentally posted student's social security numbers on the Internet in the past. I think there's grounds for a lawsuit, and as someone who had been asking UTA to stop using his social for years, I would join a class action lawsuit if someone organized such a suit.
    • by rueger ( 210566 )
      Let me add that the point in seeing a lawyer is not just to punish the college for what has happened, but to make sure that you cover your bases in case you suffer damage weeks, months or years down the road.

      If, a year or two from now, a mortgage default suddenly appears on your credit report you need to be sure that you can take that back to the college, not have them wiggle out of liability because you did something wrong in the interim.
  • Blow the issue wide open by writing a letter to the editor of the student newspaper- get the students to lobby about the issue, and the school will be forced into doing the right thing just to avoid mass walkouts of classes or rioting near the admin building.
    • Rioting? That is so last generation. These days, we blog. Get a blog about this issue in the first 10 results of a Google search for UTA, University Texas Arlington, etc., and see how long it takes for the Registrar's office to start raising hell when 1 of every 2 or 3 potential new students wants to know what has been done about the recent privacy breach.
  • Poorly handled data theft? If they did it so poorly, perhaps you could contact them and provide them with all of your personal information so they're not missing any vital parts. Make sure to chastise them so that next time, they steal data with more care.
  • possible actions (Score:4, Informative)

    by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @02:10PM (#16855420) Journal
    Not to be a pedant, but...
    What can I do, short of keeping an eye on my credit and letting the school get away with yet another blunder?"
    I don't think you want to do something "short of" that... I think you want to do something more than that ("long of"?).

    Seeing as most of the administration sees information loss as nothing more than a potential liability to them, you need to make it clear to the University top administration that this gaffe is totally unacceptable. They need to understand how bad this is -- and that it will affect their alumni fund drives.

    I'm assuming that you're fully aware of the potential problems, and how serious they are (why else would you be asking the question). You need to inform the administration, by letter (make sure you cc: your local newspapers and television station(s), and follow up with them to try to get somre more negative publicity for the U), just how serious it is.

    One other thing you can do (from an OU mishap []):
    One resourceful alum dispensed with hints, threats and allegations, and simply billed OU for the time she spent checking her credit status. Calling the university "fully liable" for her outlay of time, she e-mailed an invoice for three hours of work at her "usual billing rate" of $165 an hour.

    In its latest response, OU Legal Affairs Director John Burns has contacted the firm the woman works for, asking for confirmation of her hourly rate.
  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @02:30PM (#16855798)
    Tit for tat.
    If they are that sloppy, then these numbers should be easy to get. And it "cant be wrong" because the administration let your number get out.
  • Common sense (Score:2, Insightful)

    by uab21 ( 951482 )
    I'm waiting for the inevitable "You shouldn't do any business with those careless assholes! Transfer immediately!" replies. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be anyplace that actually implements indentity security correctly (Thanks USGov/Financial System/Educational System for making the sole key to my identity something anyone can find out for $19.95 or less!). If you're really concerned, pay for a credit monitoring service yourself. Chalk it up to yet another random fee that you have to pay to get a
  • What, exactly, do you want the school to do? You keep asking for more, but you don't mention what.

    The professor can't retroactively encrypt the data, nor can anybody unsteal the computers that contained it.

    The only thing you mention is that you want to see the professor disciplined. Will this bring your data back? Will you benefit from the discipline of a professor whose class you took years ago?

    What more do you want the school to do for you? You mentioned that you felt 90 days of credit monitoring was

    • One answer to that would be "to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future." The best way to ensure that is to make sure all the other professors know that they'll be fired (regardless of tenure) if they do such a thing in the future, and the only way to demonstrate that is by firing this professor now.

      • One answer to that would be "to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future." The best way to ensure that is to make sure all the other professors know that they'll be fired (regardless of tenure) if they do such a thing in the future, and the only way to demonstrate that is by firing this professor now.

        You really don't know how it works, do you? It is NEARLY impossible to fire a tenured professor. In fact, in order to fire this one, he would have to be actively using or selling the SSNs.

        Even wors

        • You really don't know how it works, do you? It is NEARLY impossible to fire a tenured professor. In fact, in order to fire this one, he would have to be actively using or selling the SSNs.

          No, I don't care how it works. I care about how it should work, and how it should work is that no amount of tenure or anything else should excuse someone from committing gross negligence such as this!

  • by Seraphim_72 ( 622457 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @02:43PM (#16856030)
    Though usually seen as a law regarding the voluntary violation of privacy I wonder if you couldn't get it to work in this case as well. One of the rules for FERPA [] is that
    A school MAY disclose education records without consent when: * The disclosure is to school officials who have been determined to have legitimate educational interests as set forth in the institution's annual notification of rights to students;
    Now IANAL but I would bet at no point did the school ever tell you that instructors got to get your SSN. More over I bet that they ever told you they get to retain that data either. Plus, one of the rules is that the person recieving the data must be getting it for a legit reason (like it being your ID number). I can tell you this though - I work at a college in a small IT Dept, we get 2 yearly lectures about student privacy, because of FERPA. I say write the FERPA people about it, you have never seen an Institute of Higher Ed move faster than when the Feds show up and start talking funding.


    • by macdaddy ( 38372 )
      Especially because the penalties include 1) loss of all Federal funding, 2) fines, and 3) jail time. I spent many years working for state institutions. I guarantee that they'll take a FERPA threat seriously.
  • Looks like you've tried going through 'normal channels'. Since that's not working, escalate. Move up the chain - try the University ombudsman (if there is one) and even the President of the University. Write a nicely worded letter, describing the problem and explaining what actions you want taken.

    If that doesn't work, you have other options. Organizations respond to three things:

    1) Threats to their existence
    2) Threats to their finances
    3) Threats to their reputation

    As for item 1 - I'm not referring to nu
  • by TheCabal ( 215908 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @03:18PM (#16856704) Journal
    This is exactly why I don't give my college my SSN. Data theft from schools is becoming way too common for me to be comfortable. Colleges don't need your SSN, they use it as a convienent way to generate your StudentID. Most colleges accept out-of-country students, who don't have SSNs, and have a system for generating StudentID numbers for them. My college gives me the option to use either my SSN or have a number generated for me, you can guess which one I chose.

    Seriously. Nobody but your bank and employer need your SSN, and it's not supposed to be used for non-Social Security identification purposes anyway. Why people insist on using it as such, and why people still freely give it away just boggles my mind.
    • AMEN! Mod parent up!!!
    • If you are receiving any financial aid they will need your SSN to tie in the award to the student taking classes. I used a generated SSN at first but then I started to receive FINAID and had to give up my real one.

      The instructor still didn't need the information to conduct his daily business.
    • by cr0sh ( 43134 )
      The way to do this on forms you are given when there is no instruction otherwise (such as calling somebody to explain the situation) is to write on the form where it asks for the SSN the words "PLEASE ASSIGN" - in some manner (depending on the process), this will flag the form, and the number will be assigned by the system ("system" here meaning the people handling the document and computer processing systems involved).

      Do this anywhere on forms you know don't need an SSN - typically anything not being used

  • by Pulsar ( 4287 ) < minus cat> on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @04:45PM (#16858478)
    Ahh, UTA. My bittersweet alma matter. Had some great times there, and some really frustrating times.

    Perhaps the most frustrating was when my name, phone number, dorm room number and Social Security Number were PUBLISHED ON THE INTERNET. This was in Feb 2003. The university was notified, they eventually took down the webpages that had been indexed by Google (searching for someone's name who lived anywhere on campus at UTA resulted in their social security number popping up in a result on Google. How handy!) and they engaged in massive spin-control.

    After it happened, it became fairly public knowledge that UTA used your social security number as your student id, and that your student id was actually encoded in plaintext on your student id card. Lose your student id card, lose your social security number.

    The University of Texas System made some system-wide rules after another data security incident occurred shortly thereafter at the University of Texas at Austin. Schools were no longer to release social security numbers to professors, since they had no need for it, and all schools in the UT System were to stop using social security numbers as identifiers within a year or two. This deadline was continually extended, until they finally set it at September 2007.

    UTA knew that too many people had access to students social security numbers; indeed, the school newspaper has over 92 articles concerning the school's use of social security numbers, the questionable legality of such use and the dangers (ref.: umber& [])

    My social was also one of the ID #'s that were stolen in this theft. I too, was appalled at how UTA handled this. Originally, the notification on UTA's website said that the Office of Information Technology would have a form you could fill out giving them your email address and asking them to check if you were affected; the notification was later edited to say that you must call the University's registrar's office and update your address, email address and phone number if you wanted them to contact you - clearly an effort to update the records of the Office of Development so that they could get your current address to begin spamming you about their new fundraising campaigns. And the "discounted" identity monitoring service...from a company I've never even heard of? Nice, UTA. Makes me so proud to call UTA my alma matter.

    I honestly think there's enough here for a lawsuit, and would love to participate in it. Anyone heard anything about a suit, or considering one?
  • by epine ( 68316 ) on Wednesday November 15, 2006 @09:05PM (#16862704)
    The fundamental problem here is the credit reporting system itself. I suppose after being subjected to the education system for twelve to twenty years or so, that learned helplessness with respect to the contents of a report card or GPA is deeply engrained.

    The contents of the average credit report amount to unsubstantiated slander. It's tremendously easy for smudges to accumulate, with little effective recourse. In any other life circumstance, the same poor, fragmentary, and unsubstantiated quality of information about a person's status and character would be open to action as libelous.

    I think the credit reporting agencies should be made libel for reporting negative information about any person as a result of criminal credential fraud. Even our terminology is wrong: we are talking about the theft of credentials not personal identity. An identity can't be stolen. Only the credentials are subject to third party manipulation. The institutions who choose to accept credentials as evidence of an identity should be prepared to bear the cost of their own mistakes.

    And the worst of it is that our existing credentials are designed by baboons. It's not humanly possible to protect credentials you hand to every teenage till monkey five times a day.

    We all know the truism that when you hear one person criticize another, it says as much about the person making the criticism as it does about the person being criticized. Yet the credit reporting agencies are somehow given a free pass which I've never understood. Might it be that a bad credit report reflects bad credit reporting practice? I guess we're so overwhelmed by our powerlessness in that relationship (my god, even more powerful than Miss Wormwood) that you rarely hear it suggested that perhaps the credit agencies themselves are no better than ICANN or VeriSign.
    • You actually make a very good point.

      If "Credit Agency X" reports you as being unreliable due to actions "Y" and "Z", and you did not commit said actions, could that not be construed as libel or defamation?

      It falls pretty damn close to the definition in Webster's dictionary of law:

      Communication to third parties of false statements about a person that injure the reputation of or deter others from associating with that person

      When I can't take out a mortgage because credit reporting company X has infor
  • You need to push to get Data protection legislation (similar to that used in the UK/EU) to be made a Federal Law. Some states are looking into this, but basically as the law in the US stands people holding information on you (either electronic or paper) have no legal rights to look after this information in a proper way.

    IMHO until this gets fixed you're with luck on any redress.
  • You, and many others, have been suckered into a trap, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is "because it is the American Way!". This trap, though, is a lie, one that is perpetuated and handed down through the generations from parent to child, with little questioning done by either side as to whether it is right and helpful, or wrong and harmful, to the individuals practicing it. It is foisted on the American public by large institutions out to get our dollars at every turn, and in return, these
  • ... perhaps more worrisome was the fact that they were the only stolen items in the incident.

    So somehow you would feel better if the TV and Microwave were also stolen?

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. -- Thomas Alva Edison