The Defense Department yesterday began working with a private marketing firm to create a database of all U.S. college students as well...
WASHINGTON — The Defense Department yesterday began working with a private marketing firm to create a database of all U.S. college students as well as high-school students between ages 16 and 18, to help the military identify potential recruits in a time of dwindling enlistment.
The program is provoking a furor among privacy advocates. The new database will include an array of personal information including birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, ethnicity and what subjects the students are studying.
The data will be managed by Wakefield, Mass.-based BeNow, one of many marketing firms that use computers to analyze data to target potential customers based on their personal profiles and habits.
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“The purpose of the system … is to provide a single central facility within the Department of Defense to compile, process and distribute files of individuals who meet age and minimum school requirements for military service,” according to the official notice of the program.
The system also gives the Pentagon the right, without notifying citizens, to share the data for several uses outside the military, including with law enforcement, state tax authorities and Congress.
Privacy advocates said the plan, by using private firms, appeared to be an effort to circumvent laws that restrict the government’s right to collect or hold citizen information.
Some data already shared
Some data on high-school students already is given to military recruiters in a separate program under provisions of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. School systems that fail to provide that data risk losing federal funds, although individual parents or students can withhold information that would be transferred to the military by their districts.
Recruiters have been using the information to contact students at home, angering some parents and school districts.
As casualties continue to mount in the Iraq war, recruiters also are receiving more scrutiny as they venture into high schools to solicit potential volunteers. Seattle Public Schools this summer is expected to write its first formal guidelines for all recruiters who set foot on school grounds.
Amy Hagopian, who co-chairs the Parent-Teacher-Student Association at Garfield High School, earlier this month noted that the problem is that recruiters tend to glamorize military life and minimize dangers. Their presence at a school implies a tacit endorsement of the war by that school, she said.
Young men ages 18 to 25 already are required by law to register with the Selective Service System. Under the new system, additional data will be collected from commercial data brokers, state drivers’-license records and other sources, including information already held by the military.
“Using multiple sources allows the compilation of a more complete list of eligible candidates to join the military,” according to written statements provided by Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke in response to questions. “This program is important because it helps bolster the effectiveness of all the services’ recruiting and retention efforts.”
The Pentagon’s statements added that anyone can “opt out” of the system by providing detailed personal information that will be kept in a separate “suppression file.” That file will be matched with the full database regularly to ensure that those who do not wish to be contacted are not, according to the Pentagon.
But privacy advocates said using database marketers for military recruitment is inappropriate.
“We support the U.S. armed forces, and understand that DoD faces serious challenges in recruiting for the military,” a coalition of privacy groups wrote to the Pentagon after notice of the program was published in the Federal Register a month ago. “But … the collection of this information is not consistent with the Privacy Act, which was passed by Congress to reduce the government’s collection of personal information on Americans.”
Chris Jay Hoofnagle, West Coast director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the system “an audacious plan to target-market kids, as young as 16, for military solicitation.”
He added that collecting Social Security numbers was not only unnecessary but posed a needless risk of identity fraud.
“What’s ironic is that the private sector has ways of uniquely identifying individuals without using Social Security numbers for marketing,” he said.
The Pentagon statements said the military is “acutely aware of the substantial security required to protect personal data,” and that Social Security numbers will be used only to “provide a higher degree of accuracy in matching duplicate data records.”
The Pentagon said it routinely monitors its vendors to ensure compliance with its security standards.
According to the Federal Register notice, the data will be open to “those who require the records in the performance of their official duties.” It said the data would be protected by passwords.
Some see the program as part of a growing encroachment of government into private lives, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It’s just typical of how voracious government is when it comes to personal information,” said James Harper, a privacy expert with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “Defense is an area where government has a legitimate responsibility … but there are a lot of data fields they don’t need and shouldn’t be keeping. Ethnicity strikes me as particularly inappropriate.”
The New York Times reported yesterday that the Social Security Administration had relaxed its privacy policies and provided data on citizens to the FBI in connection with terrorism investigations.
Information from a June 6 story by Seattle Times staff reporter Nick Perry is included in this report.