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Data Access Policy


All faculty, staff and students All benefit eligible employees (regular) and temporary All contractors, vendors and any others (including 3rd parties) entrusted with information maintained in the University’s information repositories


Protecting information assets is driven by a variety of considerations including legal, academic, financial and other business requirements.

Northwestern University is committed to nurturing the open, information-sharing requirements of its academic culture, while preserving the confidentiality, integrity and availability of its information resources. To promote the highest standards of decision-making and management, Northwestern University intends to provide the University community expeditious access to authoritative and accurate data from information systems.

The policy contained in this document will support and promote greater understanding of and appropriate use of data, and heightened awareness of the sensitive nature of data based on various risk factors. It is expected that this policy will improve the ability of the University community to properly manage access to University data in compliance with Federal and State laws and regulations, and other University policy requirements. Overall the policy will improve data quality and the transparency of institutional security and trust policies.

Policy Statement:

Access to data will be as broad as possible, consistent with the classification of the data, role(s) and responsibilities of the user, and level of training. Data will be classified according to its sensitivity to unauthorized exposure as per the standards defined in this document. This policy will be supported by ongoing development of a Data Access Matrix (with data classifications and data access roles), and a program which will train users to effectively and securely use University data.


Items of information that are created, collected, maintained, and utilized by the University community for the purpose of carrying out the institutional mission of research and teaching and data used in the execution of required business functions, limited by any overriding contractual or statutory regulations. Research data, scholarly work of faculty or students, and intellectual property are beyond the scope of this policy.

Policy Owners

Policy owners are the Provost and Senior Vice President for Business and Finance. The Administrative Data Council (ADC) is involved in governance of the policy.

Standards for Data Classification

University data must be consistently protected throughout its life cycle in a manner commensurate with its sensitivity and criticality, regardless of where it resides or what purpose(s) it serves. For example, extracts of data and backups of data shall have the same classification level and utilize the same protective measures as the same data in the system of record.

  1. Public Information

    Public: Public information is available to all members of the University community, and may be released to the general public. The University reserves the right to control the content and format of Public information. This information is not restricted by local, state, national, or international statute regarding disclosure or use.

    Examples include the University’s auditable financials, schedule of classes, and approved census facts.

  2. Internal Information

    Internal: Information that is intended for use by and made available to members of the University community who have a business need to know. This information is not restricted by local, state, national, or international statute regarding disclosure or use. Internal information is not intended for public dissemination but may be released to external parties to the extent there is a legitimate business need. The University reserves the right to control the content and format of Internal information when it is published to external parties.

    Examples include employment data, financial expenditure detail, Course Teacher Evaluations, and Directory Information.

    Recognizing that inappropriate disclosure of certain Internal information may result in unauthorized use of the data, the University reserves the right to designate that certain subsets of Internal information require training in the appropriate use and handling of the data, e.g., salary letters.

  3. Legally/Contractually Restricted Information

    Legally/Contractually Restricted: Information that is required to be protected by applicable law or statute (e.g., HIPAA, FERPA, or the Illinois Personal Information Protection Act), or which, if disclosed to the public could expose the University to legal or financial obligations.

    Access is granted to those individuals who have a business need to know and who have signed an appropriate confidentiality agreement.

    Examples include, but are not limited to, occurrences of personally-identifiable information, e.g., social security numbers (SSNs), personnel records, student records, medical records, names in connection with SSNs, and credit card numbers. Specific University policies may apply to particular data in this classification, e.g., Secure Handling of Social Security Numbers, Security of Electronic Protected Health Information, etc.

    Recognizing that unauthorized use of certain Restricted information may expose the University to particularly heightened risk, the University reserves the right to designate that users be required to undergo additional training as appropriate.

  4. Procedure

    A wider group of systems, business units, and individuals must have informed data access and shared responsibility for use of that data. As part of this shared responsibility, individual units are responsible for the development and implementation of procedures to effectuate this policy.

    Additional clarifications to the policy may be provided and will be communicated when circumstances require.

  5. Compliance

    The classification level applied to specific information is based on statutory requirements, the sensitivity of the data, its criticality to the University, and its use. Individuals found in violation of policy are subject to consequences as documented in the Faculty, Staff, and Student Handbooks, the Standards of Business Conduct, and via contractual agreements with third parties doing business with the University.

Satisfies ISO 27002 6.1.3, 6.2.1, 6.2.2, 7.2, 8.1.1, 11.1.1, 11.4.3

Additional Information:

  • Standards of Business Conduct
  • Protocol for Exchange and Shared Responsibility for Institutional Data 
  • Related Policies: Secure Handling of Social Security Numbers

Important Dates

Last Review Date:

  • December 2016
  • December 2013
Original Issue Date:
  • June 2007
Revision Dates:

December 2013