Student ID numbers socially insecure

By Ryan Robbins
The Maine Campus

As the Johnny Rivers song "Secret Agent Man" goes, "They've given you a number and taken away your name."

From the moment students first apply to the University of Maine, they are assigned an ID number that will stick with them throughout their stay. For U.S. students, that number in most cases will be their Social Security number.
But a lot of students aren't aware they don't have to disclose their Social Security number to anyone but the Financial Aid office.
Fran Lee, a field representative at the Social Security Administration office in Bangor, said that when Social Security numbers were first assigned in the late 1930s, they weren't intended to be used as a universal identifier.
"Gradually that position has eroded," he said. "Basically, it's not uncommon for employers, state or local governments to use the Social Security number as a means of identification."
Alison Cox, director of student records, said it would be an administrative nightmare if Social Security numbers weren't used to keep track of student records.
"The Social Security number never changes," she said. "It's easier to deal with than names."
Names can change, people sometimes sign their names differently depending on what they are signing and two people can have the same name, she said. "Matching records is impossible" without a Social Security number.
Also, if students are assigned a generic ID number, their records may get split if they leave the university and later return, she said.
"An academic record is supposed to be a complete record and we need to be able to keep all the pieces together," Cox said.
Matching Financial Aid records to students' records would be impossible without a Social Security number, she said.
"Many students would go unawarded because we would think that their information wasn't here. We'll have all the information sitting here and we don't even know it," she said.
Bill Munsey, associate director for undergraduate admissions, said a similar problem would occur when SAT scores are reported to the Admissions Office.
"If either students or faculty are casual about (Social Security numbers) being displayed, it gives one piece of information that can allow unauthorized access into records," Cox said.
She said she has seen "four or five" instances when ID numbers have fallen into the wrong hands.
The most common abuses of ID numbers occur when ex-roommates, ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends seek revenge, she said. Students should keep their grade reports, transcripts, bills, financial aid statements and any other papers that have their ID number on them out of view, she said.
Even so, "there is very little that anyone could really do just with a Social Security number and a student's name," she said.
Most databases at the university require multiple passwords or PIN numbers for users to gain access to records, she stressed.
The Integrated Student Information System, or ISIS, prompts users for multiple logon IDs and passwords. ISIS contains students' registration information, grades, Financial Aid status and billing information. Departments are restricted in what records they can and cannot access or alter.
Regardless of whether students' Social Security numbers double as ID numbers, if people want to find something out about you or alter your records, they will find a way, Cox said.
When Cox became director of student records in January, she found that many UMaine faculty and staff members were unaware of the university's obligation to keep Social Security numbers and other records away from prying eyes.
In a Jan. 16 memo, Cox admonished faculty and staff to be more careful handling student records.
"In discussions with my staff and academic officers in the colleges, I have determined that there must be a lack of knowledge of the laws and practices that apply to the release of student record information," she wrote.
In a list of suggestions to faculty and staff to maintain confidentiality of records, Cox told faculty and staff in her memo not to "post test scores or any other information by student identification number (Social Security number)."
Cox said her suggestion isn't policy; however, if professors and instructors post test scores and final grades by ID number, they must sort the list by numerical order and truncate the ID numbers.
While walking through the first floor of Little Hall Wednesday afternoon, this reporter observed two violations of the policy by psychology instructors.
Munsey and Cox said few students object to disclosing their Social Security numbers.
"I can't think of any in the last couple of years that I've come across," Munsey said.
Students who object to having their Social Security numbers used as ID numbers are assigned dummy numbers by the registrar's office. Dawn Honey, a records technician at the MaineCard office, said the office doesn't charge students for a replacement MaineCard if they change their ID numbers, but they must turn their old cards in.
"This is a serious issue and something people should be aware of," Cox said, "but we don't want people to be paranoid either."

This story appeared in the Feb. 17, 1995, edition of The Maine Campus.

Copyright 1995, Ryan R. Robbins.