Federal Data-Sharing Program Raises Student Privacy Concerns

Published November 1, 2006

On September 1, The New York Times, USA Today, and other media outlets reported a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, working with The Associated Press, had uncovered a little-known data-sharing program conducted by the FBI and U.S. Department of Education. The program was disbanded shortly after the story broke.

According to those sources, the program–termed “Operation Strike Back”–was initiated after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, targeting current or potential terror suspects who may have been using student identification and federal or commercial student loan funding for illicit purposes. The FBI sought and received from the Department of Education personal data about several hundred college students. Federal authorities say terror suspects often receive education in the United States and travel on student visas.

Classified Data

In a September 1 USA Today article, FBI spokeswoman Catherine Milhoan said the agency received information about “a small, select list of a couple of hundred names associated with ongoing investigations.” Compromised data may have included income information and Social Security numbers, according to Jurist Legal News and Research, a Web site published by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Joe Shaulis, publisher and editor-in-chief of Jurist Legal News, wrote on September 1, “the Education Department checked names sent by the FBI against the 14 million records in its student aid database. Matching records … were then forwarded to the FBI.”

Student income data and Social Security numbers are generally considered classified. The Associated Press reported the FBI requested such information from the Department of Education as recently as February 2006.

Sean Parnell, vice president of external affairs at The Heartland Institute, said the use of student records wasn’t as severe a violation of privacy in this instance as it might otherwise be. “A small, narrowly targeted program that concerns itself only with suspected terrorists who come to this country posing as students is probably a wise use of scarce resources,” Parnell said. Still, he recommended caution and oversight.

“Anytime the government starts collecting information on citizens and guests, there is reason to be concerned,” Parnell said. “Strong protections should be included to reduce the likelihood that this program will engage in ‘fishing expeditions’ or be used to attack students with unpopular ideas.”

Effects on Lenders, Businesses

The release of such sensitive and previously confidential material raises concerns about civil liberties and personal privacy, and the program’s potential ripple effects on universities and commercial loan guarantors are unclear. Student loan providers such as Sallie Mae find themselves in the awkward position of finding their own security apparatuses circumvented.

A Sallie Mae spokesperson said the company still hasn’t determined whether its position as the nation’s largest underwriter of educational loans has been compromised.

Parnell said damage to lenders is unlikely.

“As long as the financial community has confidence that this program isn’t being used in unethical ways, there shouldn’t be much in the way of disruptions to the student loan business, because foreign students tend to rely less on loans issued by American institutions,” Parnell explained.

Planned Database

The program’s discovery has intensified already-strong opposition to other projects planned by the Department of Education. Earlier this autumn, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education recommended the U.S. Department of Education create a national higher education student-tracking database designed to foster accountability for student performance. On September 26, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced plans to follow that recommendation–a move Parnell said is redundant.

“Accountability in higher education already exists, thanks to a largely market-driven system where students and families choose their own schools and have to pay at least part of the costs as tuition,” Parnell said. “The federal government has been measuring and reporting on failure in the public K-12 system for decades. It’s hard to imagine that tracking student performance in higher education will lead to improvement.”

Parnell isn’t alone in that opinion. Following the release of the commission’s recommendations, other organizations expressed wide-ranging concerns about the proposal, some citing growing unease over the government’s sometimes inept handling of sensitive information.

“Revelations about the FBI’s mining of student loan information, as well as a recent high-profile exposure of private student data on a Department of Education direct loan Web site, has made people increasingly hesitant about the proposed federal unit-record data system for higher education,” said Neal McCluskey, an education analyst at the Cato Institute and a frequent contributor to School Reform News.

Valid Concerns

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities also voiced “serious concerns” about compiling such information, saying it’s just a toe in the door to further releases of student information–a concern McCluskey said is valid.

The proposed database would “gather more information on more students than any federal database currently in use,” McCluskey said, “and is rightly being opposed by many policymakers and college groups who fear for increasingly compromised student privacy.”

Similarly, Parnell sees as dangerous the potential for politicians to use private information for political gain, saying it would damage smaller, private schools and give politicians too much control over sensitive material.

“This would be just one more unfunded mandate that the government would impose, a mandate that would be felt hardest at private colleges because they tend to have smaller enrollments. Also, there is ample evidence of supposedly private information, kept by the government, being leaked to the public by politicians and bureaucrats with an axe to grind,” Parnell said. “Allowing the government to keep track of college grades would just present too much temptation for those with access to the information.”

David Salvo ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Indiana.

For more information …

“Education Department gave loan applicant data to FBI anti-terror program,” by Joe Shaulis, Jurist Legal News and Research, September 1, 2006, http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/paperchase/2006/09/education-department-gave-loan.php

“Education Department assisted FBI in terror search,” by Greg Toppo, USA Today, September 1, 2006, http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-08-31-financial-aid-terrorism_x.htm