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Spammers using UI e-mail, phone lists

August 12, 2007

If you ever felt like university students were bombarded with credit card offers and low interest loan solicitations, don't look to the state government to protect their privacy.

In the spirit of openness, spammers and solicitors have a right to University of Iowa e-mail and phone lists, and this could apply to a new cell phone directory UI is building as part of a campus security measure.

"Essentially we are just giving them an electronic list of our address book," UI spokesman Steve Parrott said. "This is public information. We have to give it out."

Parrott receives open record requests from financial institutions and textbook companies, among others, for university directories. Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code requires that he comply.

UI has a bank of more than 45,000 student, faculty and staff names, addresses, e-mails and phone numbers that are public domain unless people request it be withheld, which is uncommon, Parrott said.

Of the total open records requests Parrott receives, which he notes has been surging for the past five years, directory requests are a relatively small number -- perhaps five or six a year, Parrott said. He said state law forbids him from asking what the information will be used for, but he said it is "pretty obvious."

"Somewhat reluctantly, but if people ask for directory information that we already have in the phone book, and if they haven't asked for it to be restricted, we have to give it out," he said. "I want to make this clear: we are not going out to market this."

While e-mails and phone numbers are fair game, Parrott said UI lawyers believe an exemption in Chapter 22 would shield a database of students' cell phone numbers, which UI hopes to collect as part of an emergency text alert system that is expected to launch this fall.

This would allow rapid text alert messages to be sent to cell phones on the list in the event of an emergency like a terrorist attack or tornado. Text messages have been found to be an effective way of reaching students in the world of rapidly changing technologies and communication mediums.

The Chapter 22 exemption protects student records held by educational institutions, although it has not been tested in relation to the text alert plan.

"It raises the question, in my mind, if those would then be public records," Parrott said. "The UI General Counsel said he doesn't think they are. ... When these rules were written, we didn't have cell phone and e-mails."

Parrott said it may be time to review this portion of the law.

A committee of Iowa legislators is scheduled to meet this fall with UI law professor Arthur Bonfield, the man who wrote much of the Iowa Open Meeting and Open Record Laws. They will begin examining the rules that have not seen a major update since they were first published in 1978.

"That would be a good example of what the interim committee can look at when they meet this fall," said Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said about the cell phone directory.

However, Dvorsky said when it comes to the UI directories, that may be a casualty in the fight for openness.

"I think that may be one of the costs we have with open records of public officials," he said.

Author:  Brian Morelli


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