FERPA vs. Facebook: Observations on student privacy

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A recent posting by a friend on Facebook examining Facebook's changing privacy policy from 2005 - present got me thinking about students and the various ways they are impacted, directly and indirectly, around privacy.

On the one hand, as university employees and people who work with student data, we must adhere to FERPA guidelines.  From Penn State's own FERPA FAQ:

"If you're a student, it's important for you to understand your rights under FERPA. If you're a parent, you'll need to understand how the law changes once your student enters a post-secondary institution. If you're an employee of Penn State with access to student education records, you're obligated to comply with FERPA and to protect those records according to the law."
What are education records you might ask?
  • Grades
  • Class lists
  • Student course schedules
  • Disciplinary records
  • Student financial records
  • Payroll records for employees who are employed as a direct result of their status as students
So this makes sense, right? As someone with access to massive amounts of student data, I certainly respect and adhere to the FERPA guidelines.

Moving on to Facebook, I find students really don't seem think about privacy.  When I taught IST 110, one of the first things my TA and I would do is go out and look for every single student on Facebook as well as run their name through Google. What we found, particularly on Facebook, is 70-80% of my students had publicly-open profiles.  This led to some very entertaining slide shows, where I would begin by pointing out cases of people losing jobs, wives, husbands, or even careers by what they post online, in the public.  Then I moved into images and quotes from my students that have publicly-open profiles. 

Some students played along, some students were embarrassed and some were irritated with me.  "How could Bart do this to me?!?!?!"   Easy, you have an open profile, ANYONE can do this to you. 

One of my course objectives dealt with building privacy awareness and helping my students identify and deal with privacy concerns. By the end of my 2-week social network module and the Facebook activity, nearly ALL of my students had private profiles, many choosing to create FB lists to manage who sees what information.  Objective achieved.

My question is this: How can we raise privacy awareness at the university level with undergraduate students?  Many seem oblivious to privacy concerns, choosing to post material on FB dealing with their own grades, classmates performance, disciplinary actions, and finally things that could cost them an internship or job opportunity.  Many students proclaim "That's not FAIR!", and to an extent I agree!  Unfortunately even if we agree the practice of employers withholding opportunities is unfair, it's reality. Just take a glimpse at all the social networking search services employers are using, like Spokeo.

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