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April 15, 2007

"data-mining" financial aid records

I visited Penn State over the weekend to speak. A more interesting speaker than I was Laura McGann. She is now a professional reporter, but last year, as a journalism student, she broke the story that the US Department of Education had shared information about student loans with the FBI. Through a program code-named "Strikeback," the Bureau searched for "anomalies" in loan applications that might indicate terrorist activities. As McGann tells the story, the government lied to her on several occasions to try to keep the program secret. As soon as she succeeded in proving that "Strikeback" existed, the government closed it down. Officials may have ended the program out of embarrassment, to avoid legal scrutiny--or possibly because it would do no good to analyze loan applications once Strikeback had been revealed.

McGann is a great example of a dogged, smart, courageous, "civically engaged" student who made a difference with her work. And I have grave misgivings about the secret program that she uncovered. Mixing law enforcement with education and financial aid should ring alarm bells.

However, all the people who asked questions or made comments after McGann's talk treated "Strikeback" as a terrible scandal. I'm not quite so sure.

I can see how "mining" loan applications might actually be a useful tool for national security purposes. It would be good to know, for example, if a bunch of students who were already under some degree of suspicion all sought financial aid to attend flight schools. We could debate whether one has a reasonable expectation of privacy when disclosing information to the government, whether data-mining could have a "chilling effect" on free expression and association (even if Strikeback were kept completely secret), and what degree of individualized suspicion the government must have before it can look at a record.

To me, the main question is whether the Department of Education acted according to the terms of existing law, because governmental lawlessness is deeply troubling--and that's what we saw when the Bush Administration bypassed the FISA court to intercept messages without warrants. I'm no expert on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but it appears a bit ambiguous whether law enforcement agencies need subpoenas to obtain financial aid records. The law allows information to be shared, "subject to regulations of the Secretary, in connection with an emergency, [with] appropriate persons if the knowledge of such information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other persons." That seems like a narrow loophole that might allow information to be shared after 9/11, albeit with a fairly tendentious definition of an "emergency."

In any case, I returned to Washington on Sunday to read that private lending companies are "mining" the same database, the National Student Loan Data System, for commercial prospects. The Department of Education apparently opposes this misuse of its data and may shut down the whole database to block it. Coincidentally, a member of my family received an invitation to participate in a federal medical study. The government could only know that she was eligible for the study if they had access to her medical records or records of her over-the-counter drugstore purchases. And indeed, the government's mailing said, "Names and addresses were obtained from a consumer information database."

All of which makes me think that our most serious problem may be the commercial use of private data, not data-mining by the FBI.

April 15, 2007 2:31 PM | category: none


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