State senate passes student privacy bill

The Oregon Senate passed a bill Monday originally aimed at thwarting Higher One but now focused on protecting students’ Social Security numbers at Oregon universities.

If passed, Senate Bill 643 would prevent state universities from releasing Social Security numbers to companies like Higher One without student permission. The bill would also require prior disclosure if the university was to give out combinations of personally identifying information such as Social Security numbers with either a date of birth or gender.

The bill now heads to the Oregon House of Representatives.

Higher One is the Connecticut-based company that began providing ID cards and financial aid disbursement services to Portland State in November. The ID cards the company provides are capable of functioning as debit cards, with students’ financial aid being deposited into checking accounts connected to the cards.

Many students have objected to the university’s relationship with Higher One on grounds that the students did not give PSU permission to give the company their personal information. Portland State does not currently provide Higher One with student Social Security numbers, but the company’s activation web site for student ID cards asks students to enter their numbers.

Several Portland State students worked with Sen. Charlie Ringo to draft the bill, which originally featured much tougher restrictions on state universities’ relationships with financial institutions, primarily targeted at Higher One. The original draft would have required that students elect to receive financial services in writing, and that universities would have to provide a no-cost alternative to any financial services provided for students who opt not to receive those services.

The language of the bill, however, was significantly altered as it made its way through the Senate Education and Workforce Committee, resulting in the current bill aimed at protecting Social Security numbers.

“This is one [bill] that went the way we hope all bills do, where the parties got together and they found an agreeable solution that protects the students’ privacy information,” Sen. Ryan Deckert said in support of the bill on the Senate floor Monday. “This is one small step forward [in] protecting students’ privacy.”

Though the bill has drifted away from focusing on Higher One, the ID card program continues to be a topic of concern both at the university and in the legislature.

This concern was echoed by Deckert on the Senate floor yesterday, as he related a story about talking to his niece, a PSU student, about the new IDs during a Thanksgiving dinner. Deckert said he was surprised to see how much the ID cards resemble debit cards.

“This issue caused a great deal of consternation among students,” Deckert said.

Earlier this month, Senate Education and Workforce Committee Chair Sen. Vicki Walker harshly criticized the Portland State administration’s efforts to offer students an alternative to the Higher One ID card.

Currently, if students do no want a free Higher One card, they must pay a $20 fee to receive a non-Higher One card from the university.

At a committee hearing, Walker told PSU Business Affairs Director Dee Wendler that she found the $20 fee “very objectionable,” and instructed Wendler to take her comments back to PSU President Daniel Bernstine.

Walker’s remarks sparked a surge of activity in the student campaign against the university’s contract with Higher One, with students posting signs around campus declaring, “Demand free opt-out.”

On April 18, Bernstine sent a letter to Walker in response to her comments during the committee hearing. Bernstine thanked the senator for her support of the amended version of Senate Bill 643, but remained firm about charging $20 for non-Higher One ID cards.

The university has had a rule requiring a $20 fee for the replacement of ID cards, and students must also pay the fee to obtain a replacement Higher One card if they lose the original, Bernstine said in the letter. The fee prevents students who lost their Higher One cards from opting out in order to avoid the replacement fee, and helps “ensure that students value and safeguard the replacement cards,” he said.