RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: FERPA and NYS Privacy Laws - 1/9/2019
We have a question that relates to the intersection of New York state level library privacy laws (...
Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

We have a question that relates to the intersection of New York state level library privacy laws (https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/CVP/4509) and FERPA. Our campus has a newish system that is attempting to correlate student actions and activities with academic success and retention. As such, it could be helpful to include things like visits to the writing center, appointments with academic advisors, and also library activities, such as whether a class came in for a library information literacy session or whether a student made an appointment for a library one-on-one consultation. FERPA lets institutions share academically related information within certain bounds.

We are wondering what the privacy balance is here given that the information would stay in-institution, but not in-library. Here's what we are considering doing:

1) Noting in the system which classes had a library session(s). Within the system, that would identify individual students within those classes.
2) putting an opt-in statement on our one-on-one research appointment form and if the student consents, then providing to system the student name, appointment date/time, and course that the help was for (but not anything about the specific content of the appointment).

Have we crossed any lines here? Do we even need the opt-in statement? Is this something clear or fuzzy/grey? What should we be considering that we haven't thought of? Thanks.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Depression.  Burn-out. Dissatisfaction. Lack of connection.  Lack of money. Lack of parking.

These are just some of the reasons students give when they choose to leave—or are forced to leave—their college or university before graduating. 

Many times, these reasons snuck up on them, although in hindsight, they could be seen: a pattern of missing classes, a downward trend in grades, maybe even dropping out of clubs and other campus activities.  And almost always, after a student leaves (often in tears) faculty and staff, coaches and friends, are left wondering: could they have done more[1]?

No matter what events led up to it, for each such incident of student “attrition,” the stakes are high: student loans, a sense of failure, the end of a career dream, and perhaps even a medical condition that went untreated while the student struggled on their own.

But what if the clues could be seen earlier?  What if the downward spiral could be stopped?

Fueled by increasing technological capabilities, many institutions of higher education are developing cross-campus, inter-sector systems to do just that: hoping to correlate the warning signs and fight student attrition through early intervention.  Using a variety of commercially available and home-programmed tech, they are tracking everything from dining hall meals, to class attendance, to visits to the gym.  These factors, as well as comments from concerned faculty or staff, are then routinely assessed and cross-checked for red flags. 

Because libraries are increasingly hosting classes and providing adjunct space for group work, it makes sense that such a system would consider tracking library usage.  After all, it can be a good sign that a student is just getting out of their dorm room!

But there is a tension within this well-meaning system.  College is where young adults journey to find their independence and privacy; promoting this maturation is part of a college or university’s purpose. Further, a net of privacy laws constrains the easy sharing of certain types of information.  But knowing the painful consequences of unchecked student struggles, many institutions work hard to find the right blend of metrics and policies to be able to intervene. 

Part of this hard work is finding the right path through that net of privacy laws.  As the member writes, the biggest privacy law of all, FERPA,[2] does allow such inter-departmental sharing,[3] and even parental notification about safety concerns, when the time is right.  It does this through both application of the law, and “FERPA waivers.”

But in New York, FERPA is not the only privacy rule to apply[4] to these information-sharing systems.  As the member states, New York’s Civil Practice Laws and Rules (the “CPLR”) §4509 (“4509”) also governs a student’s records—at least, their library records.  And it sets the bar high.

4509 is a short law where every word matters, so it is worth quoting in full here: 

Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute. [emphasis added]

As you can see, “college and university libraries,” even though they are part of larger institutions, are clearly covered by this law.

So how does 4509 impact the member’s question?

First, every library (academic or not) should have a clear sense of what it regards as “library records.”  As can be seen in the statute, the term is not precisely defined (“including but not limited to” leaves a lot of room for argument!).  Some of the obvious ones are listed in the law (circulation records, database searches, copy requests) but unnamed others could be just as vital to privacy (use of a 3-D printer, security footage covering the circulation desk, and in the member’s example, the use of research appointments).   And still others activities that use the library may or may not apply (classes conducted in the library, but not part of library programming, are arguably excludable).

To protect the records as required by law, a library must know precisely what records it must protect.  This is why, just like a public or association library, a college or university library should have a “Privacy of Library Records” policy clearly showing where it draws the line. Such a policy should also have a “subpoena response protocol,” so the library can train staff on how to receive internal and external third-party demands for information. 

And in a perfect world, this college or university “Privacy of Library Records Policy” should be known and supported by the institutional officer who oversees the library (a Provost or Academic VP).  This officer’s authority, from time to time, may be needed to ensure the policy is respected by campus safety officers, student disciplinary administration, and any other department that might want library records in service of another institutional purpose.  Librarians should not hold the 4509 lines alone!

Now, back to the member’s scenario.  Once a library knows precisely where it “draws the line” on library records, the member’s instinct is right: any access to information that falls within the institution’s definition of “library records” should be either denied, or allowed only as the law requires: via a signed consent from the user/student.

I know, just what every student wants—to fill out another form!  But these 4509 consents, just like a “FERPA Waiver,” are not only mechanisms to ensure legal compliance, they are a chance to educate students about their right to privacy. 

For instance, the consent form (I imagine it would be a digital click-through on a password-protected student account, but it could be a paper form) could say:

“The privacy of library records is protected by the law in New York State (CPLR 4509).  Your enrollment in the [SYSTEM NAME] will ask the library to disclose certain library records that are protected by this law.  As a library user at an library in New York, you have the right to keep your library records private.  A list of what [LIBRARY NAME] considers to be library records is here [link to policy].  If you would like to consent to the [NAME OF LIBRARY] sharing your library records with only [SYSTEM], please check the below consent:

[ ] I am at least 18 years of age, and consent to the limited sharing of my library records for purposes of sharing the information with the [SCHOOL NAME] [SYSTEM].  This consent does not allow sharing my library records, even within the school, for any other purpose.  No consent to share the records with external entities is give. 

I understand I will need to renew this consent every fall semester, and that I may revoke this consent at any time.

Of course, there is no legal requirement for annual renewal, but it is worth considering.  A year is a long time in the life of the typical undergraduate student, who may enter college with one set of civil rights values, and leave with another. With an annual renewal, the library not only complies with the law, but educates the student about their privacy rights on an annual basis.

So, to address the member’s final questions:

Have we crossed any lines here?

No.  By thinking about this issue during the planning phase of the system, you are making sure the lines are bright and well-defined.

Do we even need the opt-in statement?

You could call it that, but I recommend calling it a “4509 Consent.”  That would build awareness of this important law in our future leaders (and librarians).  Of course, as a lawyer, I may be biased as to how important that is (but it’s really important!).

Is this something clear or fuzzy/grey?

Not so long as your library has a clear and routinely evaluated policy defining what it regards as “library records.”  This can be tough at an integrated institution, where so much information technology crosses through different sectors.  But it should be done.

What should we be considering that we haven't thought of?  

I think you should consider buying yourself a nice cup of coffee or tea for doing your part to support a commitment to personal privacy in the United States of America and State of New York.  Unlike in the European Union, our privacy currently risks death by a thousand cuts.  Every bit of armor counts. 

Thanks.

And thank you.



[1] I was a general counsel at a university for ten years…even as the in-house lawyer, I had a few of these moments.

[2]  The “Family Education Rights Privacy Act,” a federal law often blamed for institutions not telling families about students’ struggles sooner. 

[3] If this answer were to address those bases, it would be about ten pages longer, so we’ll just assume the system in this scenario complies with all the regulations and guidance listed here: https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/audience/school-officials-post-secondary.

[4] Neither is CPLR 4509.  These systems have to navigate HIPAA, state health and mental health laws, and depending on what they do, even PCI and defamation/libel concerns.

Tags: Laws, Policy, Privacy, FERPA

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The WNYLRC's "Ask the Lawyer" service is available to members of the Western New York Library Resources Council. It is not legal representation of individual members.