The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 5, 2003
May 5, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 33


Appropriate Use of Student Social Security Numbers

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A letter to all members of the Johns Hopkins University community from Steven Knapp, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and Estelle A. Fishbein, vice president and general counsel.

Concerned students have alerted us to questionable or inappropriate uses of students' Social Security numbers by members of the administrative staff and faculty. In a time when law enforcement agencies are alerting the public to the problem of identity theft, it is necessary that the university take steps to limit the use of student SSNs to those circumstances in which no alternative exists to authenticate identity.

Posting of grades

Although most faculty understand that posting grades by SSN is impermissible, we again remind all faculty that they may not post students' grades by SSN or any other personal identifier. Personal identifiers include, of course, the names of students but also the last four digits of the SSN or student identification number. If it is desirable to make grades available to students before grade reports are sent or for any other reason, acceptable alternatives include posting grades by a number or alias known only to the faculty member and student (not assigned alphabetically); or asking the student to provide his/her e-mail address or a stamped, self-addressed envelope so the grade may be sent to the student directly.

Other uses of student SSNs

To safeguard against inadvertent disclosure of student SSNs, at the earliest opportunity the university will introduce a new unique identification number system to replace its current reliance on SSNs as student identification numbers for day-to-day university activities.

In the meantime, faculty and administrative staff are asked to curtail immediately their practice of asking students to disclose their SSNs in connection with academic and nonacademic activities, confining such requests to circumstances in which there are no reasonable alternatives. In those circumstances, the faculty or staff member collecting the SSN has a responsibility to safeguard the number from further disclosure. If a student suggests a reasonable alternative to disclosing his/her SSN, the faculty or staff member should give that alternative full consideration.

In courses in which two or more students have the same name, rather than using SSNs as identifiers, names should be modified to ensure the unique identification of work a student submits (e.g., Jane Doe 2). In circumstances in which the SSN is currently requested at sign-in to verify eligibility to use university facilities, those facilities must develop alternatives that do not require a student to disclose his or her SSN.

When no alternative is feasible, it is important that the manner in which students provide their SSNs be as private as possible and that the information be stored or disposed of properly.

Finally, the deans are being asked to designate point persons to identify those areas within their divisions that currently require disclosure of student SSNs and to work with the relevant programs to eliminate or reduce the use of SSNs. Students are encouraged to bring specific concerns regarding use of SSNs to the attention of the individuals designated by the deans.

We very much appreciate the cooperation of all members of the university community in this effort to reduce our reliance on student SSNs. Thank you.