Thursday, August 31, 2006

Blowing open another surveillance program? 

The Chronicle of Higher Education today put out a special note (and placed this article on its free space) about an FBI program that cross-checked financial aid records at the Department of Education. Any parent of a college-age kid knows about FAFSA, a form students can fill out and give to all the schools to which they apply for financial aid. When I applied to colleges in the 1970s I had to fill out one of these for each school -- now students file one through the government.

While this doesn't seem to be a violation of law, it comes in the middle of a fight between the Dept. of Education and the higher education establishment over the former's plans to track individual student progress and generate a database to report that information to the public. The higher ed establishment says this creates data privacy issues, which are highlighted by this case. This is the quote that piqued my curiosity:

"This is troubling, but not surprising," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "It's hard to be surprised when the government is mining every single database. In the war on terror, there are no safe harbors."

Mr. Hartle called the Education Department's project a "perfect illustration of the dangers of the unit-record system." He pointed out that, to receive federal aid, students must either be U.S. citizens or have a green card. "This is about finding Timothy McVeigh," he said. "This is not about finding Mohammed Atta."

A couple of things struck me. First, I think we are somewhat interested in finding Timothy McVeighs, though of course they have full rights. But the form says that "if the information that you submitted indicates a violation or potential violation of law," the data may be turned over.

Second, I wonder if Mr. Hartle is worried about the availability of safe harbors for terrorists? It's an odd quote.

I was aware of the restrictions on loans but I do think some international students -- even those without visas -- file FAFSA forms. According to this guide for international students seeking aid, there's no problem filing a FAFSA if the international student has a social security card, which can be received by some international students depending on visa type. Indeed, it appears you could file a FAFSA with any 9-digit number in the SSN field -- while it will get flagged for failing to match name and number, it will be nevertheless in DoEd's records. Those could be useful.

There were less than a thousand such searches of the FAFSA database, and I do not see any reference in the Chronicle article as to whether there were any leads generated from it. The story was written by a j-school grad student using FOIA filings to obtain the information. Obviously the Chronicle believes this is an important story, and no doubt this is because they believe it harms the efforts of DoEd to bring greater accountability to higher education. But if we have now exposed another datamining activity that is actually harming our ability to track both the Attas and the McVeighs, the fallout of the colleges' unwillingness to be accountable for what they produce could be deadly.

UPDATE: Welcome Captain's Quarters readers! Ed notes an LA Times article on the subject calls this datamining, when it appears the FBI was asking for records on specific names. From the Times' third paragraph:
Authorities said the program was limited to "fewer than 1,000" persons who were considered witnesses or "subjects" of federal terrorism investigations. Most of the searches were conducted in 2001 and 2002; the program ended in June of this year.
Do we have an accepted definition of datamining? Someone needs to get that to our j-schools soon. But my point here isn't so much that but to point out that Hartle's statement that only US citizens and green card holders filed FAFSAs isn't entirely correct. At any rate, it doesn't appear like enough others did so to make it worth the FBI's time.