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US: Recruiting Database Inspires Outrage

Privacy advocates and anti-war campaigners in the US are outraged at revelations that the Defense Department and a private contractor have been building an extensive database of 30 million 16-to-25-year-olds to assist military recruiters.

by Sue BushellCIO
July 15th, 2005

Privacy advocates and anti-war campaigners in the US are outraged at revelations that the Defense Department and a private contractor have been building an extensive database of 30 million 16-to-25-year-olds to assist military recruiters.

They say the department violated the federal Privacy Act by commencing the building of the database - which combines names with Social Security numbers, grade-point averages, e-mail addresses and phone numbers - three years ago but only filing a notice announcing plans for it in May. The Privacy Act requires that government agencies accept public comment before new records systems are created.

The row comes in the wake of last month's revelations that the federal agency in charge of aviation security defied a ban by Congress to collect extensive personal information about airline passengers even after officials claimed they wouldn't do it. Documents obtained by The Associated Press showed the Transportation Security Administration is buying and storing detailed personal information about US citizens who flew on commercial airlines in June 2004 as part of a test of a terrorist screening program called Secure Flight.

"TSA is losing the public's trust," said Tim Sparapani, a privacy lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. "They have a repeated, consistent problem with doing one thing and then saying they did another."

Secure Flight and its predecessor, CAPPS II, have been criticized for secretly obtaining personal information about airline passengers and failing to do enough to protect it.

Commenting on the military recruiting database, the Friends Committee on National Legislation noted Defense proposes to entrust the personal information of tens of millions of young adults to a commercial direct marketing company, Benow, which doesn't even have a privacy policy, and hasn't bothered to enlist in a privacy seal program.

"We strongly object to the creation of this Joint Advertising database," the body said. "The collection of this information is not consistent with the Privacy Act, which was passed by Congress to reduce the government's collection of personal information on Americans. The collection of individuals' Social Security Numbers presents risks to privacy, and is unnecessary for operation of the database. The "routine uses" for disclosure of information in the database is unjustified. The DOD proposes to ignore the law and its own regulations by collecting personal information from commercial data brokers and state registries rather than directly from individuals."

The group claims the database represents an unprecedented foray of the government into direct marketing techniques previously only performed by the private sector. And it insists such techniques simply are not compatible with the Privacy Act, as direct marketing tactics increasingly call for massive amounts of personal information. And while numerous laws protect individuals from commercial direct marketing techniques, they say these protections only apply in commercial transactions, leaving individuals with little recourse against harassing or unwanted junk mail, telemarketing, and spam from the government.

The high school campus recruiting initiative was a then little-noticed section of President Bush's much-touted No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which requires all public and private high schools receiving federal funds to "provide access to students' names, addresses and phone numbers" to military recruiters. It also mandates that high schools must allow military recruiters the same campus access to students as is granted to college recruiters and prospective employers.

But with military recruiters starting to have real difficulties filling their monthly targets as the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, some parents are complaining that the recruiters are harassing their children, and even ignoring opt-out letters filed with schools.

And activists are holding rallies and awareness campaigns to make sure students know they can opt out.





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