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Pentagon urged to dismantle student database

A national coalition of parents groups, privacy advocates and community organizations is launching a campaign today to dismantle a database of high school and college students built by the Pentagon to help target potential military recruits.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

A national coalition of parents groups, privacy advocates and community organizations is launching a campaign today to dismantle a database of high school and college students built by the Pentagon to help target potential military recruits.

In a letter being sent today to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, more than 100 groups charge that the database violates federal privacy laws and is collecting demographic and other personal information on young Americans that could be misused by the government and the marketing firms handling the program.

"We are not in opposition to those who choose to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces," said a draft of the letter asking that the program be shut down. But "the creation of the . . . database is in conflict with the Privacy Act, which was passed by Congress to reduce the government's collection of personal information on Americans."

The military, which is struggling to meet recruiting goals, argues that the effort is grounded in law and is essential to maintaining strong, all-volunteer armed forces.

The Pentagon is on track to spend $342.9 million on the controversial Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies program.

The effort seeks to help recruiters discover and reach more potential enlistees and to develop advertising aimed at those who typically influence young people, including parents, coaches and teachers.

The money is being spent through a single contract with Mullen Advertising Inc. of Wenham, Mass., that began in 2002 and can be renewed annually until January 2007. So far, the Pentagon has spent $206.3 million, according to a military spokeswoman.

Under a subcontract with Mullen, BeNow Inc., a Wakefield, Mass., firm that specializes in gathering and analyzing personal information for target marketing, is compiling and maintaining the database. BeNow has since been acquired by Equifax Inc., one of the nation's top credit bureaus and data brokers.

The Pentagon program was little known until June, when the military issued a privacy notice that it was buying lists of all high school and college students to create a database that included birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, ethnicity and what subjects the students are studying.

David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said at the time that the privacy notice should have been issued sooner and that parents could request that their children not be solicited by recruiters.

Thus far, the Pentagon has not made opt-out forms available on its Web sites, though it promises to do so by early next year. A member of one group opposed to the database, Leave My Child Alone, created its own opt-out letter and said 34,000 copies of it have been downloaded from the organization's Web site.

According to Pentagon documents, the information on roughly 12 million individuals is compiled from a variety of sources, including motor vehicle records, commercial vendors of personal information on students, and those who take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, which is given in many high schools.

The program also includes information from Selective Service registrations. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the Pentagon also is entitled to entire public high school student lists, which it says are kept separately.

One of the goals of the opposition coalition, organizers said, is to make high school and college students aware of how much private data they routinely give away.

"When young people are asked to provide personal information in hopes of receiving a scholarship or an academic honor, they may be giving up their right to privacy with nothing being given to them in return," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the groups spearheading the effort.

Other coalition members range from national groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Republican Liberty Caucus to community organizations such as the Fairfax County Privacy Council and the Sisters of Saint Francis in Sylvania, Ohio.

Larry Ponemon is a privacy expert who heads the Ponemon Institute, which studies the ethical handling of personal data. He said a variety of online services that help students apply for colleges, loans, scholarships or other academic services are collecting large stores of private information that are frequently being bought and sold.

"What the student doesn't really understand is that a lot of this rich data is going to be used by companies for the rest of their lives," Ponemon said.

Pentagon contract documents show that Mullen is purchasing high school and college "master files" from data broker American Student List LLC for $443,000, as part of a $2.5 million subcontract to create and maintain the consolidated database, as well as a list of those who opted out.

Other costs in the one-year subcontract include five employees to purchase and manage the data and provide reports and recruiting leads to the services, at a cost to the Pentagon of roughly $194,000 per employee, and $16,500 for "toll-free" calls.

"The costs associated with toll-free calls include a $25 per week file transfer fee as well as an 88-cents-per-minute toll charge with an average call lasting about three minutes," according to a Pentagon spokeswoman.

A Pentagon briefing paper on the program said that in 2005, Mullen would have access to a database from American Student List of up to 20 million young working adults ages 18 to 37 and will be looking into purchasing "medical" lists.

The spokeswoman said the services have not used either list to date.