Social security numbers are the gateway to a person’s identity, and one that officials say should always be locked.
Though the university, for unknown reasons, left the gate open by throwing away documents with sensitive student and university employee information into communal area recycling bins.
Stacks of reports, some only two years old, filled a recycling bin this month in the Student Services Building loaded with student names, birth dates and social security numbers. Most of the reports were generated by the registrar’s office on behalf of Student Health Services to track students who had not gotten their immunization shots.
The thousands of pages of green and white paper, in the wrong hands, could wreak havoc on a student’s identity.
Tony Embry, associate registrar, was visibly concerned when he saw the reports.
“They’re not supposed to be just thrown out,” he said as he made notations and leafed through the stack. “They’re supposed to be taking them out with a lock on them.”
Embry said this is the first time this has happened.
“I can’t give an answer because I don’t know how they got here,” he said.
After the interview, Embry wheeled the 64-gallon recycling bin into the registrar’s office.
Senior Patricia Wrenn, whose name, birth date and social security number appeared on one of the reports, said it was irresponsible for that information to be out in the open.
“I assume when you trust someone with your information, they would do the same,” she said. “I wonder where the rest of my transcripts are.”
The Office of the Registrar has the “Student Records Management Manual” that outlines procedures for handling student records. Page 19 of the 59-page manual talks about physical security of records.
“Avoid leaving documents or reports containing protected student information on reception desks/counters or in other areas open to view and/or access by students and visitors,” the document states. Page 21 covers guidelines for records destruction and disposal.
“Any document that contains personally identifiable student information, even if it is not considered to be an official student record, cannot simply be placed in the trash,” the report states.
According to the report, there are three ways to dispose of student records: shredding, burning and sensitive material recycling, where documents are put into locked bins.
Embry said the registrar’s office uses some locked recycling bins.
Dot Monroe, a program assistant with campus recycling, said there is no set schedule for emptying the bins. She said they are emptied when they are full.
Monroe added that this is not the first time sensitive materials have been found. She said she has told campus departments before to shred their documents before putting them into the bins.
“I brought it to their attention,” she said. “Anything can happen today. All I can do is suggest that they be shredded. They felt it was safe enough. It’s probably safe, but you never know.”
It’s not knowing that can be dangerous. Identity theft is prevalent, and with social security numbers, thieves can assume the victim’s identity by getting a driver’s license, loans, credit cards and bank accounts.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency received more than 40,000 reports of identity theft in 2000.
“That information in the wrong hands … it can have very serious consequences,” FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell said.
She said victims of ID theft should alert credit bureaus, banks and credit card companies.
Another recycling bin in the Student Services Building, outside the Office of Purchasing and Payroll Services, was filled with documents. Many reports contained information such as names, social security numbers and payroll information.
One report listed only last names, first initials and social security numbers of faculty and staff.
J. R. Reed, assistant controller for Purchasing & Financial Services, said normal procedure calls for such documents to be shredded.
Reed said her department didn’t have a shredder because of their move from the administration building to the Student Services Building.
“It’s not common,” she said as she looked at the documents Wednesday. “It’s usually shredded by someone in our office or department.”
She added, “We were thinking there’s some level of safety (in recycling the documents).”
Larry Leslie, a mass communications professor, was listed on one of the payroll documents. He said while these types of incidents “crop up” in the community from time to time, he was not happy to know that sensitive information was so readily available.
“That’s a greater threat than anthrax,” he said. “I’m more likely to get hurt by (identity theft) than anthrax. This is pretty serious stuff.”
Leslie said the mass communications department shreds all documents with student information.
Political science professor Susan MacManus is no stranger to the public eye. But she was concerned to know her social security number appeared on the same list.
“Social security numbers are another matter,” she said. “I do think in this day and age the university should be more attentive to public safety and liability of records. It’s not the thing to do. There are plenty of cheap shredders.”
Jean Bendaly, a graduate student, was surprised to learn a payroll adjustment form with his name on it was available for the taking.
“It’s outrageous. It’s upsetting,” he said. “Especially now with things going crazy here in the U.S. You can get implicated for things you didn’t do.”
In an e-mail sent to The Oracle after the interview, Reed wrote that her department acquired a shredder and that the recycling bin had been moved inside the Payroll office. She also wrote that she would contact campus recycling so bins could be emptied daily.That information didn’t calm Leslie’s mind.
“I’d expect administration to be just as diligent (as faculty) to protect information whether they’re moving or not,” he said. “They have a responsibility. There’s enormous potential for doing harm to people on those lists.”