Kansas University has completed its investigation into the inappropriate disposal of documents containing personal information from the Department of Mathematics, officials said today.
The investigation was launched in response to the Sept. 18 receipt by three area newspapers, including the Journal-World, of packets of documents, some of which contained personally identifiable information such as a Social Security number and/or student ID number, that were taken from university trash or recycling bins.
The records were accompanied by an anonymous letter, written ostensibly by former mathematics department teaching assistants and current employees of the KU Recycling Center, that said the records had been recovered from trash and recycling receptacles in the KU math department. The letter went on to say that the writers had repeatedly tried to persuade the math department to better safeguard personal information.
To prevent similar instances, the math department has contracted with a shredding company to destroy discarded documents, and 14 secure bins have been placed around the department's office for the purpose of collecting materials to be destroyed.
Additionally, math department faculty and staff have received information on document protection and disposal policies, and the department has changed the settings on its fax machine so that confirmation sheets no longer display an image of the document being sent.
According to Jack Martin, deputy director of University Communications, a university report recommended disciplinary action against some employees. However, Martin would not provide more specifics.
"Small, seemingly insignificant things can lead to serious breaches of security," said Jane Rosenthal, KU's privacy officer. "That's why it's so important for everyone who handles private information to know the proper way to secure and, if necessary, destroy that information."
KU's investigation revealed that the largest group of documents contained in the packets were fax confirmation sheets featuring a partial image of the document being sent. There were also some class rosters, exams, grade forms and other miscellaneous documents in the packets. Some documents appeared to be personal in nature and unrelated to university business, and are thought to have been discarded by the individuals whose information appeared on them.
"This incident uncovered deficiencies in how this particular department handled private information, but it also provided the entire KU community with a valuable lesson in why we need to focus on keeping personal information secure. Ensuring the privacy of data is something that has to take place every day, and it has to involve every member of the university community," said Rosenthal.
The university has taken steps to notify individuals whose sensitive personally identifiable information was contained on the documents. Notification letters were sent last week to the majority of individuals, though in some cases affected individuals received phone calls.
In both instances, affected students, faculty and staff were told what kind of personal information the documents contained and given guidance on resources they can use to prevent the misuse of that information.
"We want to let these individuals know what sort of information was involved so they can take whatever steps they feel are appropriate to protect themselves," said Rosenthal.
Upon notification of the receipt of these documents by area newspapers, the university requested the return of the documents. The University Daily Kansan provided the university with the original documents and kept copies. The Lawrence Journal-World declined to return the original documents but did provide the university with copies. There were approximately 230 pages of documents provided to the university, many of which contained duplicate information. The Journal-World shredded the original documents on Sept. 25.
The documents sent to the Kansas City Star were destroyed by the newspaper before university officials were able to examine them, KU said.
KU's Privacy Office maintains a set of standards and practices for the safekeeping of this kind of information, including keeping all student information, such as exams, in a locked filing cabinet.