School systems already must give military recruiters the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of their high school students or risk losing millions in federal education aid. This data transfer is required under a provision of the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, and it troubles many educators and parents. Now, the military is collecting even more detailed information about students from other sources, too, a June 23 story in the Washington Post revealed.

Privacy advocates are protesting the Pentagon’s use of a national computer database with files kept on millions of students the military says it needs for recruiting to help fill its ranks. The information could be abused by the government or the private company that keeps it, the advocates contend. They also say there is no need for the information to include a Social Security number, which could be used to steal someone’s identity.

The military says the information will help steer it to potential recruits. Officials said the Social Security numbers are scrambled to prevent abuse and that the database has been used only for recruiting purposes.

The issue has surfaced because the regular Army–and the reserves of all military branches–are having difficulty attracting recruits.

“The program is very important, because it helps the recruiters be more effective to target qualified candidates for specific missions,” a Defense Department spokeswoman, Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, told the Associated Press (AP).

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 services.

The military says it collects the data itself. It has hired one company, Mullen, to manage the information. Mullen hired a subcontractor, BeNOW of Wakefield, Mass., to process the data.

Privacy advocates learned of the database only last month after the military, as required by law, put a notice in the Federal Register, a federal government publication, that it keeps such information. The groups’ concerns were reported in the Post‘s June 23 story.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, said it was a “fair complaint” that the Pentagon should have given notice in 2003 instead of now.

According to the Federal Register notice, the data include information on high school students ages 16 to 18, college students, and people who have registered with the Selective Service, which would manage a military draft if it were reinstituted.

American men ages 18 to 25 are required to register with Selective Service and provide their Social Security numbers.

The information kept on each person includes name, gender, address, birthday, and–if available–the Social Security number, eMail address, ethnicity, telephone number, high school and college attended, graduation dates, grade-point averages, education level, and military test scores, the notice in the register said.

It also includes a list of people who do not want to be contacted by the military for recruitment purposes, officials said.

The military obtains this information from several sources: individuals who volunteer it, state motor vehicle departments, commercial information brokers, and the Selective Service system. The records are supposed to be destroyed five years after they are gathered, the military says.

Military officials said they have about 30 million names in this database. Chu said the services have been required by law to keep such information for recruiting purposes for at least 23 years.

Chu said later that the Social Security number is scrambled before it enters the database so it remains a unique number useful to identify an individual, but not that person’s actual Social Security number.

The arrangement has many problems, said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, a director with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Hoofnagle was one of nine privacy advocates who filed a protest in the Federal Register notice.

For one, the military provides no guarantees it will not turn over the information to law enforcement, counterintelligence, and other government agencies, Hoofnagle said in an AP interview. Krenke said the Pentagon does not do this; the Federal Register notice says the military retains the right to do so.

“Without your consent, the Defense Department can take [information] out of the system and share it with other agencies,” Hoofnagle said.

That the military buys some of its information from commercial vendors might violate the federal Privacy Act, Hoofnagle said. According to the law, the government is required to contact an individual first to gather information before trying to obtain it from other outlets, he said.

Hoofnagle also raised concerns about BeNOW’s ability to safeguard the information, saying it would be safer if directly held by the government. A receptionist at BeNOW referred all questions to the Pentagon.

The Pentagon office does not manage data the military services collect under NCLB, officials said. A provision of this act requires school districts to provide military recruiters with student phone numbers and addresses or risk losing millions in federal education aid.

Parents or students ages 18 and older can “opt out” of the NCLB provision with a written request. Critics have challenged the measure on privacy grounds, while others say it gives the military an unfair opportunity to sway young minds.

Links:

U.S. Department of Defense
http://www.dod.gov

Joint Advertising, Market Research, and Studies Group
http://www.jamrs.com/contact.php

BeNOW
http://www.benow.com

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org