Since 2002, the Defense Department has been collecting info to help recruiters.
10.24.2005 3:38 PM EDT—Imagine a massive database packed with the driving records, favorite college subjects, GPAs, ethnicity and Social Security numbers of every American age 16-25. What could anyone possibly want with all that data?
That's what more than 100 advocacy groups (including Rock the Vote and the World Privacy Forum) asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a letter last week that called for the military to stop compiling its vast database of personal information about U.S. teens and twentysomethings.
With enlistment numbers slipping in recent years (see "With Big Recruitment Deficits, U.S. Army Acknowledges The Elephant In The Room"), the Department of Defense began compiling the database in 2002, reportedly intending to help boost recruitment. But privacy groups, who learned of the program earlier this year, worry that it could open the door for a more widespread tracking of personal information by the government.
"When they began compiling this database, it was intended to be a resource of information on these individuals, and at that time it was in violation of the Privacy Act," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the groups that signed last week's letter.
The database includes information such as name, date of birth, gender, address, phone number, e-mail address, Social Security number, state DMV and Selective Service records, education level, intended college major and other data from a handful of commercial databases.
"It's being promoted for recruitment, but our concern is that the information will be shared like any other information the government collects, and other agencies will be using it for who knows what," EPIC's Coney said. "The Privacy Act limits what agencies can do in collecting information on private citizens."
Coney said at the very least, government agencies have to show a substantive reason to collect this type of information, which the groups that signed the letter do not believe the Department of Defense has done.
Also, the DOD did not list the database on the Federal Register until May 2005. Before embarking on this kind of information gathering, Coney said, the Privacy Act requires that government agencies post their intentions on the Federal Register (www.gpoaccess.gov/fr), a type of national bulletin board. Because the DOD did not announce the database plans and give groups 30 days' notice to mount a challenge, the database is not legal, critics insist.
A DOD spokesperson could not be reached for comment at press time.
According to Ad Age, the Joint Advertising and Market Research Studies unit that runs the database is using it in much the same way that traditional marketers use databases to target potential consumers, but the difference here, Coney said, is that the approximately 30 million names in the DOD's list don't have the same protections typically afforded the public when it comes to such marketing. For example, the DOD can disclose personal information to others without an individual's consent or knowledge, and it does not have to offer any opt-out rights.
Among the missing protections is also the ability to request a correction or deletion of inaccurate information. "Let's say you don't want to be marketed to and you ask for a suppression to be put on your file so you're not contacted by recruiters," Coney said. "That still means that there's no way that the information on someone between 16 and 25 won't be in the system. You can't opt out, and while you have the right to know what information marketers have on you in the private sector and if it's accurate, here you don't have access to who is using the information, who has access to it and whether it's even correct."
According to EPIC, the database can be shared with any number of agencies and entities without a person's consent, including law enforcement, other government agencies, Congress, foreign law enforcement, state and local tax authorities, the Department of Justice, the National Archives and "almost any entity for national security purposes."
"What are they going to do with this information?" Coney wondered. "Don't be fooled into believing this is about recruiting. This is a federal agency that decided on its own to collect information on its citizens. It's about doing other things, and the potential is great for it to be used and abused. The government is not supposed to try and create private profiles of its citizens, and they are trying to do that with a whole generation."
A DOD spokesperson told Ad Age the information could be passed on to other government agencies but that the DOD hasn't done so yet and does not currently intend to.
On its Web site (www.EPIC.org), EPIC lists several ways to protect your privacy, including how to request access to your file under the Privacy Act. Also, you can contact your school and request to opt out, which won't remove you from the database but should end recruitment solicitations.
— Gil Kaufman