9 Investigates: UNC students' information open to the public

by: Peter Daut Updated:


CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A major Channel 9 investigation uncovered an issue affecting tens of thousands of college students across the state: The personal information of nearly all University of North Carolina students can end up in the hands of anyone who asks for it.
Nick Chandler said it started with a text message that he and other UNC-Charlotte students received from an unknown number.
The text offered prizes and a limo ride to a new apartment complex near campus for students interested in renting there.
But Chandler, who is studying identity theft for a master’s degree in information technology, felt his privacy had been violated.
“I really was concerned on how it was that they got my cell phone number,” he said.
So Chandler contacted the company behind the text, and eventually spoke with a manager from Aspen Heights Apartments.
Chandler asked how the business got his number, and was stunned to learn the manager also had his name, address and email address.
“I said, OK. Where did you get that?' and through a little bit of pressing he eventually told me he got it from the school,” Chandler said.
Chandler contacted school officials, who told him the North Carolina Public Records Act requires them to provide to anyone who requests them the names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, dates and places of birth, previous schools attended, involvement in school activities or sports, and scholarship information for students.
“It's just frightening, it really is. Because this information is being given out freely,” Chandler said.
Chandler said the information being shared is a gold mine for advertisers, stalkers and identity thieves.
“I don't think any student is aware that this is going on,” Chandler said.
Channel 9 tried several times to contact Aspen Heights corporate office, but never heard back.
Eyewitness News wondered how much information about students we could get just by asking.
UNC-Charlotte emailed a long list containing the names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, dates and places of birth, scholarship information and majors for every current student, which is about 25,000.
Channel 9 also received the height and weight of every athlete.
“Oh my God. I mean, I was completely blown away,” said student Michael Hester.
Computer science major Hester is on the list and said he tried to opt out from having his personal information shared by the school.
He said the response he got from school officials felt like a threat: “Consider carefully the consequences of your decision to withhold directory information.”
The school stated it has no choice but to take an all-or-nothing approach with student information.
Any student who chooses not to have their information shared with the public cannot have their name in the commencement program or dean's and chancellor's lists.
Their enrollment at the school will not be verified to anyone, including insurance companies, other schools and potential employers.
“We're concerned with protecting the information that's private, and we're equally concerned with following the letter of the law,” UNCC spokesman John Bland said.
UNCC stated the decades-old North Carolina Public Records Act forces all UNC schools to share student information -- except Social Security or student ID numbers -- with anyone who requests it.
“If we were a private university it might be different. But we're a public agency, and we're required to provide information that the law deems to be public,” Bland said.
Channel 9 contacted several state lawmakers who were alarmed by what Eyewitness News uncovered.
“Well, thank you for bringing this to our attention,” said Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg County.
Cotham said she's furious this information is being shared so freely. She plans to do something about it.
“I think because you've brought this to me, I want to start asking questions of the state and see what we can do to make this better and safer for students,” Cotham said.
The school said all students are informed of the law in the student handbook.
It also recommends that students who want to keep their information private, but not pay the consequences later on opt out, and then opt back in right before graduation.
Chandler said it's ironic the same institution that teaches him to guard his personal information is providing it to strangers.
“As students we expect a certain amount of protection,” he said.