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Privacy Concerns About U.S. Database

November 19, 2008

As a general rule, big government databases aren't especially popular, and higher education's recent experiences with them -- be they the relatively new federal database to track foreign students in the wake of September 11, or a proposed "unit records" database to track the academic success of students as they move through the educational system -- have generated controversy.

Little wonder, then, that advocates for colleges and students are more than a little concerned -- okay, freaked out -- by a plan by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General to gather personally identifiable information from nine existing databases of grant, loan and contract recipients into one giant "data analytics system" and by the Education Department's decision to waive certain privacy rules for the new records system.

"We are ... quite alarmed by the scale and scope of data collection proposed in [the proposed database], by OIG’s apparent belief that it has an unfettered right to engage in data mining on records of individuals who have had any interaction with the department, and worse still, OIG’s apparent belief that it may disclose individually identifiable information from [the database] to various outside entities, including foreign agencies and private organizations, without the consent of the individual," the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers wrote to the inspector general on behalf of six other associations of colleges and students.

The groups, who go out of their way to say that they generally support the inspector general's efforts to rein in fraud and abuse, were responding to a notice published in the October 16 Federal Register in which the inspector general's office sought comments on a plan to take information from nine existing databases -- including several major collections about student financial aid recipients -- and store it in a new database. The massive data source will allow the inspector general's office, by analyzing patterns of data, to better identify "internal control weaknesses" and improve its modeling and planning to "predict anomalies indicating fraudulent activity." The inspector general's office in the Education Department is, like its peer offices in all federal agencies, responsible for ferreting out fraud and abuse involving federal programs and funds.

The database will "store individually identifying information" -- Social Security numbers, birth dates, and conceivably financial information about student aid applicants and their parents -- about an enormously wide range of people, the department's notice states: "Employees of the Department; consultants; contractors; grantees; advisory committee members or others who have received funds from the Department for performing services; students who have applied for Federal student financial assistance; Pell Grant recipients; borrowers of William D. Ford Federal Direct Loans, Federal Family Education loans, Federal Insured Student loans or Federal Perkins loans; owners, board members, officials, or authorized agents of postsecondary institutions; and individuals applying to the Department's Office of Federal Student Aid for a personal identification number."

That's the first problem with the department's plan, the college groups say: that it plans to "allow massive amounts of irrelevant, unnecessary, and erroneous information about U.S. citizens to be secretly compiled" in a centralized place.

That problem is exacerbated, they say, by the fact that the department, in a final regulation also published in the Federal Register on October 16, grants numerous waivers to the federal Privacy Act that will allow the inspector general to share information from its new database with other parties -- other federal agencies, state law enforcement agencies, and even foreign governments -- that request it and can persuade the department that they need it. And those disclosures can be permitted without notifying those whose information is being released or giving them a chance to correct flawed information.

"It's troublesome enough that they are seeking to collect this extraordinary amount of information to use for themselves, though it may be acceptable if they use it to fulfill their statutory duties," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the registrars' group. "But then they take this enormous leap from having the right to access such for themselves to having the right to disclose data on a very loosey-goosey basis, to virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry that strikes their fancy."

The inspector general's office insists that the colleges' concerns are greatly exaggerated. It notes that the data that will populate the new database already exist in the numerous underlying databases, and that the privacy rules that would govern the new database largely mirror the ones that apply to the existing databases. In other words, the Education Department can already provide information from the database that contains financial data submitted by applicants for federal student financial assistance to state or even foreign law enforcement agencies that are investigating possible fraud involving their programs.

Bottom line, the inspector general's office asserts: the new database will not provide any disclosure of this information beyond what is already permitted, and the information will be no less protected in the new database than it is in the underlying databases in which it resides now.

That is likely to prove little comfort to the college groups, given their strong rhetoric. "We do not believe that the Inspector General Act of 1978, as amended, was ever intended by Congress to allow the creation of a Big Brother-like surveillance system by any IG, to permit any IG to set itself up as a data
mart of information on U.S. citizens for domestics and foreign law enforcement agencies, or to
authorize any IG to provide background checks and degree verification on U.S. citizens to
private entities, with or without their permission."

The other groups that signed the letter were the American Association of Community Colleges; the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, and the United States Student Association.

 

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