Opinion

Student phone numbers are sensitive information and should be protected under FERPA

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I will admit this — I have looked my name up on Google in the past, multiple times. Some of the search results that come up make me feel quite proud of whatever I have done in life so far, while others make me turn red in embarrassment. However, one day, I found something that ticked me off. 

I found my name listed on the University’s public directory and at first, I was not too bothered by it, but upon further inspection, I found my phone number as part of the listing. My phone number was out there for anyone to see. Out of curiosity, I decided to look up some of my friends — whose numbers I had — and sure enough, their numbers were out in the public too. The fact that I could find the numbers so easily made me think that literally anybody could access these numbers, and it scared me.

In today’s digital age, phone numbers are often connected to sensitive personal information. The public availability of phone numbers could easily enable someone to hijack the number, thus gaining access to emails, social media accounts and even bank details. Most attacks are likely to catch the victim unawares, with a sense of realization dawning on them only when it is too late.

The public availability of phone numbers could also provide stalkers the information needed to harass somebody. While someone may try changing their phone number to try and ward off a toxic ex or invasive stalker, they would also need to update records with the university, which would reflect in the database and they would be back at square one. Students being stalked are affected in a multitude of ways mentally, physically, socially and even financially. No one should have to contend with such situations under any circumstances.

Furthermore, placing phone numbers publicly in the form of directory information makes it very easy for scam callers to target students. In the last few years, there have been many reports of phone scammers targeting international students, often posing as bank officials demanding sensitive information or police officers falsely accusing students of committing crimes and demanding monetary payment to avoid arrest. International students — forever in fear of expulsion and deportation —  often give up information and money and only realize the truth when they reach a point of no return. 

The university and the police work hard to provide resources and information to combat most of these issues but this begs the question — why place the phone numbers in a public directory in the first place?

This question could be answered upon perusal of FERPA.  FERPA provides all students at American postsecondary institutions some rights regarding educational records, including some control over disclosure of personally identifiable information. However, this set of rights comes with a set of exceptions, most notable being the control of “directory information”. Directory information is defined as “information contained in an education record of a student that would not generally be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed.”  The release of such information does not require the student’s written consent. UW-Madison has a defined list of information deemed to be “directory information”, with most of it being quite harmless. But the list also includes phone numbers.

It is important to remember that FERPA was signed into law in 1974, a time when phone numbers falling in the wrong hands did not pose nearly as much harm or risk of invasion of privacy. But things have changed in the years since, as phone numbers are now inextricably linked to sensitive information and are thus, sensitive information in themselves.

While there are ways to limit the display of such “directory information” too, it can have unexpected effects on students. The display of phone numbers should be an opt-in and not an opt-out thing.

Considering the technological advancements of the world in the last 45 years or so, phone numbers of students enrolled in American postsecondary institutions should be protected under FERPA as non-directory information. A public database has many useful applications, especially at a large institution like UW, but the database could be established with wisc emails alone. 

Public availability of phone numbers today is most certainly harmful and puts students’ privacy at risk, thus endangering students and preventing them from making the most of the opportunities afforded to them on campus with a clear mind.

For more information on how you can update your directory settings, visit https://kb.wisc.edu/registrar/18785.

Anupras is a freshman studying Computer Science. Do you think that UW students' phone numbers should be protected under FERPA? Should the University take student privacy more seriously? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com

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