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Pentagon Creating Student Database

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The Defense Department began working yesterday with a private marketing firm to create a database of high school students ages 16 to 18 and all college students to help the military identify potential recruits in a time of dwindling enlistment in some branches.

The program is provoking a furor among privacy advocates. The new database will include personal information including birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, ethnicity and what subjects the students are studying.

"The purpose of the system . . . is to provide a single central facility within the Department of Defense to compile, process and distribute files of individuals who meet age and minimum school requirements for military service," according to the official notice of the program.

Privacy advocates said the plan appeared to be an effort to circumvent laws that restrict the government's right to collect or hold citizen information by turning to private firms to do the work.

Recruiters have been using the information to contact students at home, angering some parents and school districts around the country.

School systems that fail to provide that information risk losing federal funds, although individual parents or students can withhold information that would be transferred to the military by their districts. John Moriarty, president of the PTA at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, said the issue has "generated a great deal of angst" among many parents participating in an e-mail discussion group.

The Pentagon's statements added that anyone can "opt out" of the system by providing detailed personal information that will be kept in a separate "suppression file." That file will be matched with the full database regularly to ensure that those who do not wish to be contacted are not, according to the Pentagon.

But privacy advocates said using database marketers for military recruitment is inappropriate.

Chris Jay Hoofnagle, West Coast director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the system "an audacious plan to target-market kids, as young as 16, for military solicitation."

He added that collecting Social Security numbers was not only unnecessary but posed a needless risk of identity fraud. Theft of Social Security numbers and other personal information from data brokers, government agencies, financial institutions and other companies is rampant.

The Pentagon statements said the military is "acutely aware of the substantial security required to protect personal data," and that Social Security numbers will be used only to "provide a higher degree of accuracy in matching duplicate data records."

The system also gives the Pentagon the right, without notifying citizens, to share the data for numerous uses outside the military, including with law enforcement, state tax authorities and Congress. Some see the program as part of a growing encroachment of government into private lives.

"It's just typical of how voracious government is when it comes to personal information," said James W. Harper, a privacy expert with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "Defense is an area where government has a legitimate responsibility . . . but there are a lot of data fields they don't need and shouldn't be keeping. Ethnicity strikes me as particularly inappropriate."

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the Social Security Administration relaxed its privacy policies and provided data on citizens to the FBI in connection with terrorism investigations.

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