If knowledge is power, and power corrupts, does absolute knowledge corrupt absolutely?

That’s the sort of thing I find myself wondering in light of two of our front page stories this month. Both have to do with data, and both underscore data’s dual nature. Like somebody once said about rifles, Data don’t harm people; people do.”

On the one hand, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the outfit that administers the eRate, has unveiled a powerful new tool. You can use it to research eRate data regarding applications and awards.

On the other hand is the disclosure that the Department of Education (ED) is “sharing” personal information about individual citizens with an array of government agencies and even with private companies.

Used wisely and in moderation, the new eRate tool is probably a good thing.

Educators, by and large, are wise and moderate souls, so this new tool should do much to help schools steer clear of eRate pitfalls. Associate Editor Cara Branigan has done an admirable job of bright lining the boundary between common sense and risky assumption.

Non-educators, however, might not be so circumspect. What will Old Dominion politicians make of the news that one 18-school district in Arizona, for instance, received more eRate funding than all 1,800 schools in the commonwealth of Virginia? And will vendors go along quietly should they discover that applications including their competitors’ products were approved twice as frequently as applications including their own?

I have a hunch about that, but let’s wait and see.

Then, there’s ED’s free-wheeling policy on personal data. In this post-election era, with Republicans in control of all three branches of government, federal distribution of personal information might be the last liberal practice in Washington.

ED is giving sensitive personal data to the likes of the IRS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, debt collectors, and the draft board. ED captures the information when, for instance, a family applies for tuition aid on behalf of a high school student with college ambitions.

By the time this issue of eSchool News was ready to go to press, ED hadn’t been able to tell our reporters whether the agency applies the same generous sharing policy to school funding applications or to free and reduced-price lunch data. In the absence of a definitive government response on these questions, however, it probably is prudent to assume that any personal information you provide will get a wide distribution.

In the early days of the internet, geeks liked to say, “Information wants to be free.” If the government were as willing to “share” information about its own operations as it is to pass our personal data around, it might be a fair trade. But that’s decidedly not the case, as evidenced by this administration’s consistent policy of rejecting Freedom of Information requests.

The eRate tool from the SLD is a refreshing exception. It’s a too-rare example of a government agency making data freely available. Now, it’s up to us to use that information wisely.

In any bureaucracy, activity tends to expand to engage all the employees on the payroll. Perhaps that’s what’s going on here.

When the feds decided to conclude their monopoly case against Microsoft (see Page 10), they probably found a lot of free time on their hands. Now that they’ve stopped watching Bill Gates, they can spend considerably more time watching us.