Privacy Protection Advice for College Students

By Karen Frazier

Kraser is an author, freelance writer and journalist.

In January 2010 Eastern Washington University reported an electronic security breach affecting as many as 130,000 of its past and current students, sparking concerns about electronic privacy protection. When a hacker broke into the university’s system, he or she compromised private information, including Social Security numbers, names and dates of birth.

Another incident in 2010 involved a glitch in the College Center for Library Information’s software that left more than 126,000 students from six Florida community colleges at risk for identity theft.

These aren’t isolated incidents. The Open Security Foundation website shows a growing history of data security incidents in institutes of higher education, ranging from a stolen laptop at Tulane University containing more than 10,000 private, unencrypted records to more than 300,000 University of Nebraska Lincoln students’ financial data being posted on the Internet. This article examines threats to electronic privacy in colleges and universities and suggests privacy protection advice for college students.

Identity thieves put electronic privacy in higher education at risk.

Colleges and universities maintain electronic databases of private information about their students and faculty. Along with Social Security numbers and dates of birth, such databases also retain archives of financial aid application information, student health records, grades and other personally sensitive data that serves as a hacker’s paradise. Even students who applied for admission or financial aid but did not attend the university are at risk.

Further complicating the issue, online college communities, distance learning via the Internet and social networking all provide even more sensitive electronic data, some that’s readily accessible through a simple Google search. Communal living in dorms and apartments also adds to the risk of identity theft. Combine these factors with university information systems that lack centralization or adequate data protection, and unscrupulous identity thieves have a rich source of personal information ripe for the picking.

With so many ways to gain access to the private details of college students, how does one manage to graduate without facing identity theft and other losses of personal private data?

Protect your Social Security number.

During the college application process, don’t automatically supply your Social Security number when asked. Instead, do further research to determine whether a Social Security number is required or is merely strongly recommended. Many applications for scholarships and scholastic testing appear at first glance to require a Social Security number; however, on deeper examination they only request it. Be on guard whenever someone asks for your Social Security number, and provide it only when absolutely necessary.

Shred private data, online and offline.

Communal living in a college environment presents a threat to private information. Shared computer networks and trash receptacles provide an easy source of sensitive data to anyone seeking it. Use a paper shredder to destroy any hard copies of private materials and a data shredder program to destroy any sensitive electronic information. Additionally, don’t store unencrypted financial data on any computers connected to local communal networks, and protect your computer login with a strong password.

Connect to various online networks with great care.

University online networks, social networks, forums and chat rooms help you stay connected with your school’s community; however, they also supply another way for people to gather private information about you. Provide as little identifying information as possible when you participate in online communities, and set appropriate privacy settings on social networking websites such as Facebook. Additionally, be careful whom you allow into your online network because you’ll be granting these people access to private information.  This common sense privacy protection advice for college students is fundamental to a secure online experience.

Post private information only to people you know and trust.

Although you may feel you have grown to trust people in your university networks, it’s never a good idea to make private information public via the Internet. A casual post mentioning a dorm, for instance, may bring someone you were not expecting to your doorstep. Protect yourself by supplying personal information only to people you know and trust.

Monitor your information for suspicious activity.

A 2010 Javelin Strategy & Research identity theft study showed that 18- to 24-year-olds take nearly twice as long as older age groups to detect identity fraud and are therefore victims for a longer period of time. To avoid identify fraud, keep an eye on credit reports, bank accounts and credit card bills, and watch for suspicious activity.

You may wish to monitor your college’s news releases even after you leave the school. In general, colleges and universities notify anyone affected by a security breach; however, many do it by mail. If you have not kept your alumnus data updated, it may take a while for the notification to find you — if it ever does. Monitoring your college’s news feed may notify you far sooner about data theft, giving you a head start on discovering suspicious activity.

Regularly search for your name on Google.

Because some data incidents involve posting private information on websites, make sure you also regularly check the Internet to discover what information it contains about you. To do so, visit one or two popular search engines such as Google or Bing, and type your name in the search box. If anything suspicious comes up, respond immediately by contacting the website and asking the owners to remove your information.

By staying actively involved in protecting your personal data, you remain in control of guarding your privacy and quashing any incidents as soon as they arise.  Using this privacy protection advice for college students you should be fine.

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