Student records were released to FBI after September 11 attacks

By Marc Larocque

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) said that it submitted the federal student loan applications of millions of students to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of an anti-terrorism investigation which spanned nearly five years since the September 11 attacks.

The USA Patriot Act permits universities to release students’ information without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), said Glenn Hill, director of Information, Security and Identity Services at Northeastern.

The data-mining project, called Project Strike Back, was first made public by Laura McGann, a journalism student from Northwestern University. McGann said she found out about the education department project from a brief mention of it in a Government Accountability Office report about data-mining programs at various federal agencies, according to the New York Times on Sept. 1. For her part, McGann will begin a full-time job at the Dow Jones Newswire this month.

She confirmed the existence of the program through a report from the education department’s Inspector General’s office, which created Project Strike Back. She filed a request with the department seeking additional details of the project under the federal Freedom of Information Act in June.

“I think it’s really important that students should understand their privacy rights,” Hill said. “It’s very important for them to understand the FERPA policy and the university policy that supports the FERPA legislation.”

Fewer than 1,000 names were checked in the database over five years, according to Mary Mitchelson, general counsel to the DOE’s inspector general. Project Strike Back was directed through her office.

“I don’t think terrorists are in college or would want to be,” said Nate Kenton, a sophomore chemistry major. “How could someone be our age, trying to learn in college and be interested or have ties to terrorism?”

Under the program, the FBI provided names to the DOE to check in the department’s database of student aid applicants. The repository keeps information on about 14 million students per year who apply for federal aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the standard application form that the federal government, state governments and most colleges use to determine students’ eligibility for financial aid. Included in the database are students’ names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers.

“This particular project actually involved an intergovernmental transfer of data,” Hill said. “It did not involve a college or university and it didn’t involve anyone at Northeastern to my knowledge. It was an intergovernmental transfer of data. The university’s practices in disclosing data is consistent with FERPA and our published FERPA policy.”

But the DOE is not covered by FERPA, which bars the release of student records that include personally identifiable information without the permission of students or their parents.

News of the secret data-mining effort comes at a time when college officials are divided over a proposal to establish a so-called unit-record system to track individual student’s education progress. Private college leaders, in particular, are worried that not enough safeguards exist to ensure the security of the data.

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