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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Advertisement emails like ClusterFlunk bring up student data privacy issue

For students wondering where the emails that fill their Webmail spam folders come from, there’s more to the process than someone on the other end clicking the send button.

Spring has seen recurring emails in students’ university accounts for an online college networking service called ClusterFlunk. Founder AJ Nelson wrote in an email that the website filed a public records request to UF at the beginning of the semester for a list of students’ email addresses and majors.

Although federal law under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects students’ information, not all of it remains private. “Directory information,” or details deemed not harmful or an invasion of privacy, are available to the public upon request.

Such is the case at UF, where for a $100 flat fee, anyone can obtain a student’s information: their name; email address; phone number; local and permanent address; major; class and college; enrollment status; date of attendance; degrees and awards received; previous educational institutions attended; weight and height of university athletes; publication titles for dissertations; and nature and place of employment at UF.

UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes wrote in an email that the university receives about 15 of these requests per semester.

“The University of Florida is required by law to provide directory information on its students, faculty and staff if requested,” Sikes said. “Like students, faculty and staff also receive unwanted email from vendors. Some of it ends up in our spam filters and some gets through, nonetheless.”

While she said the university hasn’t received complaints regarding spam emails, ClusterFlunk’s emails aren’t just going into spam folders.

Michael Stone, a 26-year-old UF teaching assistant and graduate student, took notice when ClusterFlunk’s emails visited his typically spam-free inbox. Within three weeks, three more emails appeared.

Stone took his concerns to Twitter, where he questioned ClusterFlunk on where it obtained his email. ClusterFlunk apologized and removed him from its mailing list.

He said his issue isn’t with ClusterFlunk but with its cluttering of email accounts reserved for educational purposes.

“If everyone found out about this practice, if companies started automatically doing this — it’ll be worse than your personal email,” he said.

As a teacher of an online course for the College of Journalism and Communications, Stone’s main mode of communication with his students is through email, he said.

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If the volume of spam emails picks up in UF email accounts, he’s worried his students won’t be able to see his emails or check their inboxes at all.

Although students can’t stop anyone from requesting their information, steps can be taken to shield their inboxes from spam.

Florida Bridgewater-Alford, director of campus communications outreach, wrote in an email that students can check the university’s help desk wiki for information on how to filter their emails.

[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 4/2/2014 under the headline "Advertisement emails bring up student data privacy issue"]

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