Confidential Information About Students Left Exposed in Education Ministry Hallway

Sensitive personal information about students, including psychological diagnoses and school evaluations, is being stored at an unsupervised location in a corridor of an Education Ministry building in Jerusalem. Any visitor who gets through the building's initial security inspection, if he were so inclined, could look through the documents and even take them.

Legal authorities say the arrangement is an apparent violation of privacy protection laws.

"The Education Ministry has to obey the laws and procedures that [the ministry] itself requires with regard to everything connected with the protection of the privacy of students, especially since it involves sensitive information and minors," said Michael Birnhack of the board of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Birnhack lectures on privacy law at Tel Aviv University.

Education Ministry sources say the way in which the documents are stored - most are in open crates in a hallway - is nothing new. Every few months, when space is at a premium, documents are shifted to the hallway for a week or two until room elsewhere is made available, and sometimes the crates line the hallway, says a source. Some of the papers relate to appeals from students seeking special consideration on matriculation exams on the basis of learning disabilities. The documents also include psychological evaluations, schools' reporting on the students' academic performance and personal correspondence. There are documents in the hall stored in notebooks labeled "payments to external special education students." They contain information about students in psychiatric hospitals. A visitor who gains entry to the building after stating the purpose of his visit has access to the documents in the corridor.

Despite the lax document handling at the Education Ministry itself, the ministry has issued clear directives to schools about protecting students' privacy. A circular from the ministry's director general from the beginning of the year, for example, advises educational institutions that computer output containing information about students should receive special handling, adding that "data output is not allowed to be removed from the room in which the computer containing it is located without special approval." The instructions require that data be stored in a locked cabinet, and that "staff who come in contact with sensitive information" should be supervised.

Birnhack says a student's right to privacy is established in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and other laws protecting the individual. He noted: "A series of circulars from the Education Ministry director general stresses the importance of students' privacy at school, particularly psychological and medical information. It is appropriate for the Education Ministry to fulfill the obligation imposed on teachers or counselors. Prima facie, it is sensitive information that must be kept confidential," he added.

The chairwoman of a national organization representing parents, Etti Binyamin, questioned how teachers who talk about their students in school hallways can be criticized when the ministry itself carelessly handles confidential records.