WASHINGTON – A national coalition of parents groups, privacy advocates and community organizations launched a campaign Tuesday to dismantle a database of high school and college students built by the Pentagon to help target potential military recruits.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Defense Secretary Donald 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.
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 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.
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.
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.