Thursday, June 08, 2006

Protecting Privacy, Personal Rights

All types of materials come into archives, such as very personal letters, diaries with heart-breaking passages, private thoughts written on the back of envelopes, and documents with sensitive or confidential information. So archivists are acutely aware of the need to protect the personal rights of individuals. Donors trust us with their legacies and depend on our professional ethics in preserving and making available for future use the record of their lives and careers.

In order to handle the historical record that is entrusted to us, archivists must be knowledgeable about laws that govern the rights to privacy and the rights to information. Beyond the possibility of alienating potential donors, and thereby lessening the available human and historical record accessible to future generations, there can be serious legal implications for inappropriate actions concerning providing private information or denying access to information. The balancing act is not always easy.

Documents containing individuals’ Social Security numbers pose particular problems concerning privacy and access. Legislation effective June 30, 2006, categorizes intentional disclosure of a Social Security number as a Class D felony and inadvertent disclosure as a Class A infraction.

Ball State’s Social Security Policy I.2 mandates that “grades and other pieces of personal information will not be publicly posted or displayed in a manner where use of all or part of the BSU ID or Social Security number (including use of the last few digits of the Social Security number) identifies the individual associated with the information.”

From the 1970s and 1980s, Ball State University Board of Trustees' records contain lists of employees and graduating students that include Social Security numbers. The rest of the information in the documents has potential research value, though.

While it is possible to make copies and black out the relevant private information on the user copies of single or a small number of documents in a collection or record series, the Archives is faced with a more difficult situation in handling a large volume of important documents like the Board of Trustees records when they contain this type of information.

So how do we handle it? Working with the University Compliance Committee, a policy was developed, sent through appropriate University channels, and approved.

In accordance with privacy laws, selected Board of Trustees records have been restricted due to the inclusion of individual Social Security numbers. Separation notices have been filed in place of the said records, indicating removal and informing users to consult the Director for the Archives and Special Collections Research Center concerning access to the restricted records.

Depending on the nature of the research and amount of information requested, the Director will determine the appropriate format in which the information will be supplied to the researcher, any costs involved to the researcher, and turnaround time for providing the information. If just a few documents are needed, photocopies with the Social Security number blacked out may be provided. For larger volume requests, the specific information needed from the documents may be extracted and provided to the researcher.

As in all cases with sensitive or confidential material, the Archives will work to provide access to the most complete and useful information needed by researchers while maintaining individual privacy rights and following legal mandates.


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