Big Brother wants to get even bigger

The federal government wants to build massive databases containing information on you, insisting that it’s in your best interests. But privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse.

Among the proposals:

  • The Department of Education may gather personal information on the progress of 15 million college students in the United States including race, degree plans and financial aid. The agency currently collects such data only on students who receive federal aid, but is eyeing gathering all such information on those who self-finance or whose parents pay their tuition so they can track students through their college years.
  • The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants access to personal data collected by immigration agencies on those who board international flights to the United States. The agency says it would be easier to track down ill passengers if there’s an outbreak of disease.
  • The Department of Homeland Security is asking Congress to allocate $847 million to create a new Office of Screening Coordination and Operations. It would coordinate and consolidate databases it plans to assemble digital fingerprints and photographs, eye scans and other personal information gathered on millions of Americans and foreign visitors.

The proposals are sparking a debate with privacy advocates fearing the government is collecting too much personal information. Federal officials already maintain vast databases on Americans thanks to the information gathered through the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs and Small Business Administration, to name just a few agencies that collect data.

“All of these proposals may have good intentions, but there’s inevitable mission creep when these banks are put to other purposes,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Rotenberg, who teaches information law at Georgetown University Law School, said database administrators aren’t giving sufficient attention to federal laws requiring the government to maintain the privacy of Americans and to be open about the process.

He noted that the Transportation Security Administration has repeatedly refused to divulge any information on airline passenger information it is gathering. The TSA also initially promised that the information it gathered would only be used for aviation security, but since has suggested the database could be used by state and federal law-enforcement activities.

Rotenberg said recent disclosures about the loss of personal data on hundreds of thousands of Americans by private database consolidators ChoicePoint and LexisNexis shows the danger of not putting stringent procedures in place.

The Education Department’s proposal to track all college students has already triggered a backlash from some educators.

Katherine Haley Will, president of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, complained that the government hasn’t explained why it needs this information and how it will handle it. She says she’s concerned about protecting the privacy of her students by giving the government sensitive data. “At what cost to individual privacy?” she asked.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said her agency was only responding to a request from Congress to see if assembling the database was possible and that a final decision on whether to go ahead hasn’t been made.

Spellings said her department concluded it would be feasible to put the database together but she hasn’t decided if it should. “I’m not taking a position on it,” she said.

Spellings said concerns over safeguarding student privacy are one of the issues that have been raised. “We’ve all watched this credit-card stuff going on,” she said.

A CDC official told a House transportation aviation subcommittee this month that her agency wants the capability of tapping into the information that transportation and immigration officials gather to identify potential terrorists or international travelers in case health authorities have to track down passengers exposed to a communicable disease.

Anne Schuchat, acting director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, said the number of international travelers is increasing and that the agency must be able to quickly find others who may have been exposed in the event of an outbreak.

“The threat of infectious-disease introduction and rapid spread is real,” she said.

The CDC recently conducted a test using data from flights to see if a more speedy identification of passengers is possible. She said disease detectives currently have to comb through plane manifests and customs declarations by hand.

Administration decisions to accelerate research by the National Science Foundation into finding other uses for computerized databases have brought protests from computer scientists. President Bush’s proposed budget includes $803 million for research in information-management technologies next year.

In an open letter, 14 computer scientists protested what they said was a shift in government research priorities to what “could be the adoption of systems of mass surveillance unrelated to any terrorist threats. This will give the government sweeping new capability to monitor private life and thus diminish the freedom and liberty of Americans.”

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)