MSA looks to increase student data privacy

The resolution seeks to make more personal information private initially, unless the student opts for the information to be public.

Niamh Coomey

The Minnesota Student Association is looking to increase student privacy by reducing the amount of data the University of Minnesota makes available online.

The University’s online student information database hosts students’ information, often without their realization of how much is online. This has raised concerns among MSA members, who passed a resolution this December suggesting the University apply certain changes to the current system. 

MSA is advocating for personal information, such as home addresses and phone numbers, to be excluded from the database unless the student opts to have the information added to the database. The current default of the database includes a student’s name, x500, phone number, email address and home address, among other enrollment information. These changes would better support student privacy.

University second-year Sina Roughani brought the issue of student information privacy to the attention of MSA members last year when he presented during an MSA forum meeting. He did extensive research and testing of the online system to discover how easily accessible student information is.

Roughani said he spent much of his freshman year looking into the pitfalls of this system and advocating for its change.

“I was living [in] the dorms at the time, so this was my talking point to a lot of people. I would go around the dining hall and just tell them ‘hey, did you know that your personal information is [online]?’” he said. 

Roughani found many issues with the current system, such as the ability for student home addresses to be found with a Google search. He presented his findings to both MSA and University President Eric Kaler.

There is a video on the University’s One Stop Student Services’ website outlining how to remove information from the database. An email also goes out at the beginning of the school year informing students of the information that is online. However, these resources often get overlooked by students, said Austin Kraft, a MSA representative to the Board of Regents.

According to the resolution passed in December, approximately 18 percent of University of Minnesota Twin Cities students suppressed data in 2017.

Kraft said this information could be overlooked by students because of the mass amount of emails that get sent out to their University accounts.

MSA At-Large Representative Kate Kuehl said that having student information online, specifically physical addresses, can be a huge issue, especially when it comes to victims of stalking or sexual violence. 

Kuehl said she uses programming and computer science knowledge to help survivors of sexual assault evaluate their online presence and educate them about what information is included on the database. 

“I had run into survivors that had their address on there and didn’t even know it,” Kuehl said. “It was a concern within the community, especially [for] people facing sexual harassment or stalking, things like that. It shouldn’t be default that your information is out there.” 

In addition, international students are also affected by the current University-implemented system.

Apostolos Kotsolis, MSA at-large representative, said international students on F1 visas in particular are required to be diligent about updating their physical addresses on the database because of immigration laws.

“If you are an international student and you don’t keep that information up to date, that’s an immigration violation,” Kotsolis said. 

Companies can also take advantage of the information listed on the student database, Kuehl said.

“When your information is out there, they can send you whatever and it’s not vetted by anybody,” Kuehl said. “I think they take advantage of people.” 

Despite some of these issues, the University has been a leading force when it comes to institutionalizing student information privacy, Kraft said.

“If you’re a student and you don’t feel that your information is secure, how does that affect your feeling of connection to the campus, your feeling of trust?” Kraft said.