E-mails For Sale
Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 12:03
Anybody who wants to get their hands on a complete list of names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse needs to go no further than the Records and Registration office.
All that is required to get this information is to file a request and pay a fee of $80 plus $0.02 per address requested. Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been nine such requests.
Most of the requests come from businesses starting out who are trying to market their services or products. This is where much of the spam and junk mail we all get comes from. Other requests come from political organizations, the military and even other campuses in the UW System.
One request comes in every fall. The American Student List, www.studentslist.com, is a Web site that gathers contact information from schools across the country and then sells this information to whoever will pay. If you are a student, your personal information is for sale on their Web site. The organization does not hide its purpose. They claim to be a "leading provider of youth marketing data," and they attained our information simply by paying the school.
UW-L is not alone in doing this; every public school in the state does the same thing. But the schools aren't to blame.
"The school doesn't have a choice," said Jim Treu, who works in information security. The "Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act", or FERPA, is a federal law that allows this. The law states, "Schools may disclose, without consent, directory information such as a student's name, address, telephone number..." This law, however, only says that a school may do this, not that they have to.
As UW-La Crosse is a state run school, it is technically part of the state government. As such, the school is affected by the states open records law.
Wisconsin Statute 19.31 declares "complete public access" to "information regarding the affairs of government." Essential this law states that every individual citizen has a right to obtain records from all public institutions. Apparently student directory information falls under this category.
The bottom line is that public schools do not have a choice. They have to give the information to whoever asks. All the school can do is charge an administrative fee in hopes that it might deter some requests.
According to Jan Vonruden, who tracks the requests, the fee "does deter some people." Since some requests come from startup businesses, often these small companies do not have the few thousand dollars it takes to attain the entire e-mail roster.
Fortunately, FERPA allows students to opt out of having their personal information disclosed. If you want your information to be kept confidential you can remove it from the list that goes out by adjusting the privacy settings under account information on your WINGS page. According to the Records and Registration office, an e-mail goes out every fall informing students of this option.
The question, however, should be why a student's personal information is a matter of public record in the first place. And secondly, why should we have to "choose" to keep our information confidential. It should be confidential by default. Then, if a person chooses, they could allow their information to be disclosed, not the other way around.
The internet already makes it easy for anyone to get their hands on just about whatever information they want, confidential or not. The last thing we need is for the institutions we trust with our records to simply give it out to whomever asks.