Identity Crisis

Your Social Security number is the key to your identity, and if you want financial aid, Ball State makes it your identification number

Ball State may be treading illegal waters by requiring cash-strapped students to use their Social Security number as identification. Students can theoretically choose not to use the federal number as student ID, but in reality they must do so if they want financial aid or a campus job.

Campus officials say any student who needs financial aid is shackled to his or her Social Security number by Ball State's computer system. The campus-wide systems are only capable of carrying one identification number at a time, and the Social Security number is a necessity for financial aid.

Bob Zellers, director of Financial Aid, and Tom Bilger, the director of registration in the Bursar's office, said the one space must be used for the Social Security number if a student applies for financial aid.

"It's a problem," said Kay McNitt, assistant vice president for systems and technology for Student Affairs. "We have to send information back and forth to the government, and you need the Social Security number for that."

Privacy rights advocate Chris Hibbert said despite technology concerns, Ball State is still skirting on the edge of the law. He added that inadequate technology is a common lament among universities, but federal law does not make it legal.

"It's an excuse rather than a justification," said Hibbert, who writes for Computer Professionals for Responsibility and has testified before the California state legislature about privacy rights issues.

However, University Computing Services is working extensively with Student and Financial Affairs offices to complete a $1.5 million system upgrade by fall 2003, said Dennis Kramer, director of UCS, and Ball State would presumably then phase out using the Social Security number as identification. The final decision, though, would have to be approved by the administration, said Donald King Jr., associate director of UCS.

Douglas McConkey, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, said those implementing the system have discussed the possibility of using a separate identification number. But, McConkey said, the administration's senior staff has not discussed it. King said such an act would require permission from senior staff.

STUDENT SECURITY

Kramer said using a different number will not improve student security, and that most security breaches are caused by carelessness.

"It's just going to be another number to remember," he said. "(Students) will end up writing it down and leaving it somewhere.

"Security is very high on our list of things to do everyday, (but) no system is 100 percent foolproof."

Loren Malm, Senior Coordinator for Technologies and Systems Integration, said most problems are "more of a breach of trust than a breach of security,"

Still, the Social Security office advises students to not to use a Social Security number as ID. James Warrner, district manager of Muncie's Social Security office, said students should always see if another number can substitute for their Social Security number.

McNitt added that "everybody should be concerned about their Social Security number and keeping it private."

Yet Ball State students routinely display their identification cards -- with Social Security number magnetically imprinted on them -- to purchase dining hall meals, check out library books and use practically all campus services.

The university has made strides recently toward minimizing the risk of unwarranted Social Security number exposure. Prior to 1999, Social Security numbers were emblazoned on all student identification cards.

"We try to get away from using Social Security numbers as a record," McNitt said.


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