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2005-06-24

Pentagon Developing Massive Database on Millions of U.S. Students

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The Pentagon is working with a private company to create information dossiers on millions of young Americans to help identify college and high school students as young as 16 to target for military recruiting. We speak with the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Center and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA). [includes rush transcript]

The Pentagon is working with a private company to create information dossiers on millions of young Americans to help identify college and high school students as young as 16 to target for military recruiting.

The massive database includes 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 Pentagon has hired the Massachusetts-based company BeNow to run the database apparently in an effort to circumvent laws that restrict the government’s right to collect or hold citizen information by turning to private firms to do the work.

The new database is being created at a time when the Armed Forces is struggling to meet its recruiting goals. The Army has missed its monthly recruiting goals every month so far this year.

The Pentagon’s Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies Group has overseen the data since 2003, when it took over several recruiting databases managed separately by the military.

Privacy advocates learned of the database only recently after the military–as required by law–put a notice in the government publication "The Federal Register," that it keeps such information.

Some data on high school students is already given to military recruiters in a separate program under provisions of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Under the new system, additional data will be collected from commercial data brokers, state drivers’ license records and other sources.

  • Mark Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington DC.
  • Mike Honda (D-CA), he is sponsoring a bill that would make it easier for parents to block military recruiters from gaining access to their high school-aged children.

NOTE: We called BeNow to get comment, they referred us to Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke. When we contacted her at the Pentagon, she did not answer our request for an interview.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to Congress Member Honda in a minute, but right now, we turn to Mark Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. Can you explain this database?

MARK ROTENBERG: Yes. Amy, first of all, it’s Mark Rotenberg. And the database that’s being proposed by the Department of Defense is an effort to essentially micro-target the recruiting effort. What they are doing is taking information that’s available in public record sources and commercial data brokers and developing profiles on American high school students and American college students who could be recruited into the armed services. EPIC, my organization, which is online at EPIC.org does a lot of privacy act work. And when we saw the notice in the federal register last month about this proposed database we quickly realized that there were Privacy Act problems. And as the story has gone forward over the last month, it’s really extraordinary what’s coming out now about this program.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the whole issue that the armed forces are saying that they are prepared to share the information with other entities of the government, as well?

MARK ROTENBERG: Right. Well, they’re saying many different things. I mean, there have been a lot of conflicting statements, even at the press conference last evening when they were talking about the database. They said on the one hand, it was not going to be used to call recruits directly until someone pointed out that, in fact, they were collecting telephone numbers. So they’re having a bit of difficulty, I think, you know, getting the story straight. But one of the important things about the Privacy Act, and this really does go to your question, is that it requires the federal agencies to explain how they propose to use the information. So the Department of Defense says that in the first instance the information will be used for recruiting purposes, and then they set out what are called the Privacy Act Exceptions. And they list 13 different categories of additional use of the information, including a possible use for law enforcement purposes. They have, in effect, by this notice already announced that they reserve the right to use all of this data that they’re collecting for law enforcement purposes and to transfer to law enforcement agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress Member Mike Honda of California is also on the phone with us. He is sponsoring a bill that would make it easier for parents to block military recruiters from gaining access to their high school-aged children through this provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. Congress Member Honda, what is the bill that you have introduced?

REP. MIKE HONDA: Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. Can you hear me?

REP. MIKE HONDA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the bill that you have introduced?

REP. MIKE HONDA: Yes, I introduced HR 551. It’s the Students’ Personal Information Protection Act. What is possible right now, because of No Child Left Behind was amended to require school districts, public schools to divulge personal information, private information of minor students without the consent of parents. And if a school district or school denies military recruiters of those information, they shall lose federal funding. Now, this bill is not about denying access to the campus for the purpose of recruitment of the military recruiters. It is to protect and put back in place the parent prerogative to share that information of their minor child’s information.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to comment that we did call BeNow, the Massachusetts company, to get comment, and they referred us to the Pentagon. A Pentagon spokesperson, Lieutenant Colonel Ellen Krenke said — well, would not answer our request for an interview.

REP. MIKE HONDA: Okay.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this company, and can you talk about this Pentagon corporate relationship? And also the fact that information will also go to corporations, is this right?

REP. MIKE HONDA: That’s my sense. It’s something that just came up. What I do know is that there are federal laws that prohibit federal agencies from sharing individually recognizable information without the individual’s consent. What the Pentagon is doing is contracting a third party, that is BeNow, that is a very well known data mining organization that can go out and data mine all of the information that is out there publicly, pull that together for the purposes of identifying individuals, and that would include minors who have credit cards or have, you know, access to certain kinds of information technology, oriented identification, and ability to get — buy or sell things on Ebay and things like that. But information is out there, and they’re mining it. And the third party, it seems to me, may be exempt from the federal laws in terms of sharing — in terms of sharing the data that they have gathered. So they don’t seem to fall under it, but it seems to me that it escapes the intent and spirit of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s just interesting to point out, if you go to the BeNow website, the company that’s going to data mine for the Pentagon, that their other clients include Tower Records, Saab (the car), and MetLife.

REP. MIKE HONDA: Right. And those are the areas where — those rental companies are not able to share information. They’re prohibited from sharing it, but it seems like that the information is available to be mined by BeNow, and gather that information. And, you know, it may be a loophole, I don’t know. But the bottom line for me is that military recruiters want to come on campus and talk to students. I think that’s fine. But I think that to demand that of school districts at the pain of losing federal dollars is not right, and number two, if schools say, "We’re not sharing that information, you need parent permission," I think that’s appropriate. Parents should have the first right of refusal to be able to protect their minor child’s private information.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Congressman, you have taken the lead on this issue in Congress. Have you been getting a lot of phone calls from concerned parents that prompted you to do this? Or what are they saying about these attempts to recruit their young, their children?

REP. MIKE HONDA: Yeah. A lot of parents are dismayed that this is going on, and most of them didn’t know that this could happen to them and their child. And so, they have complained and made us aware that this is going on. And so, being a high school teacher and an ex-principal of a public school, I understand what they’re saying, and I also understand that, you know, public schools have a responsibility to protect their children and be an advocate for the children and for the parents that they serve.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Congress Member Mike Honda of California. Also in the Washington studio with us is Mark Rotenberg with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. How can students opt out of having their personal information put into this database, Mark Rotenberg?

MARK ROTENBERG: Oh, sorry, Amy. Well, there are two different databases actually at issue here. One is under the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congressman Honda described. Parents have the opportunity to fill out a form to say that they don’t want their personal information on their children used for recruiting purposes. It’s a very difficult provision to exercise. We generally recommend opt in, basically allowing people to express an interest in participating in a database as a better way to go. But that problem and that approach is actually separate from what goes on with the new database that the Department of Defense is proceeding with, which is actually not tied to No Child Left Behind. That database, the one being managed by BeNow, according to the Federal Register, will permit individuals to express a preference not to be contacted for recruiting purposes, but they will still be included in the database, as well as all of the personal information about them that’s been acquired. So the privacy protections here that were established are really very weak.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the issue — we’re reading almost every week in the mass media of a new breach of security with these data-collecting services. Now we are getting yet another one being collected by the Pentagon. Your concerns about this continued gathering of information by private companies who often don’t have very good security to be able to protect their files?

MARK ROTENBERG: Right. Well, we think that’s a very serious issue in a couple of different ways. I mean, one, it’s clear this year with all of the security breach notifications that there is a real problem with the security of information databases in this country right now. The most recent breach was about 40 million records maintained by a credit card processing company, and this is also having a direct impact on the crime of identity theft, which according to the Federal Trade Commission last year cost American consumers and businesses over $50 billion. When the Department of Defense announced this database and we looked at the Federal Register notice, and we saw that they were proposing to include the Social Security number, I mean, for us and people in the privacy and security field, that’s just a red flag, because it is the Social Security number that enables both the data matching and also the crime of identity theft, and it’s another problem under the Privacy Act, because federal agencies, generally speaking, aren’t supposed to collect the SSN.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Rotenberg and Congress Member Honda, I want to thank you both very much for being with us; Mark Rotenberg with EPIC, website, EPIC.org, Congress Member Honda of California.

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