DC Government Agency Accidentally Gave BuzzFeed Students’ Personal Information

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Parents of students in the District of Columbia were notified Wednesday that a government office accidentally gave their kids’ personal information to the website BuzzFeed.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) gave the student data to BuzzFeed in response to the news agency’s Freedom of Information Act request regarding enrollment data for individual students and information about suspensions and expulsions.

The agency handed over the data in an Excel file with the personal information of the students redacted and the file locked before it was sent. Officials at the agency later found out, though, that an Excel file can be unlocked just as easily.

Brian Coleman, a spokesman for the OSSE, told The Washington Post, the information was only sent to BuzzFeed, and it’s okay because they promised not to unlock the file.

According to a statement released by the agency, the information leaked included student names, dates of birth, grade levels, gender, race, ethnicity, special education status, school of attendance, reason for suspension/expulsion, dates of suspension/expulsion, truancy status, removal to an alternative setting, and unique student identifiers. Social Security numbers were not included in the data.

“Please know that I recognize the serious and troubling nature of this breach,” Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang said in the statement. “I apologize for this situation, and want to assure you that improving our security procedures will be one of my top priorities in my first weeks and months as state superintendent of education.”

In response to the accidental information leak, the OSSE told the website not to look at the inadvertently disclosed data, launched a “thorough review” of the way the agency handles requests for information, and set up a dedicated phone line where parents can get more information.

This isn’t the first time the D.C. government has had a problem keeping students’ personal information confidential. Earlier this year, the same website informed D.C. Public Schools that hundreds of their sensitive documents were freely available online to anyone who wanted to look at them.

According to BuzzFeed, one of the documents left for public view contained passwords and usernames that could be used to access an email account where parents of special education students sent complaints to DCPS.

After BuzzFeed informed the agency of its error, the website was immediately taken down.

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