Opinion

The Left Wants All Of Your Personal Data. Yes, All Of It.

Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins Director, Senior Fellow, American Principles Project

The far-left Center for American Progress (CAP) recently sounded another volley in the campaign to collect and share enormous amounts of personal data on American students. CAP argues the federal government should enhance interoperability among its various data networks and modify privacy protections that currently prohibit sharing of information housed in those separate databases. The ostensible benefit would be to give “policymakers and consumers … access to comprehensive information in order to make informed choices about how well colleges and universities are serving their students.”

There’s been an ongoing debate about whether federal law should be changed to allow creation of a “student unit-record system” — a central data repository combining student higher-education data with employment data to track individual students and analyze the correlation between their education and their employment and earnings. The “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio, would facilitate this outcome, in the name of advising consumers about colleges and the best (meaning most lucrative) courses of study.

CAP now argues that beyond a unit-record system, much “useful” data already exists in federal databases and could be leveraged with a few tweaks. Considering the existing data pools at the Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, and Veterans Affairs; the Social Security Administration (SSA); and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), CAP salivates about the wonders that would result if all this data were traded back and forth with the Department of Education (USED).

For example, the IRS receives information annually from every higher-education institution about, among other things, student and family income levels, scholarships awarded, amounts billed for tuition and expenses, and status as full-time, part-time, or graduate student. The IRS uses this data to verify taxpayer claims for an education tax credit. But, as CAP enthuses, “such data also could be used to produce highly accurate net price information for students by institution — and potentially by program of study — and also by family income level. These data could be combined with available information on students who receive financial aid” to run all sorts of analyses on higher education. Alas, however, USED currently can’t get its eager hands on this priceless information. Something about privacy.

Although CAP claims this data could be anonymized, the ease of “re-identification” has been demonstrated time and again, especially with so many data points in the pool. And another example offered by CAP explicitly contemplates the cross-agency sharing of personally identifiable information:

“Military recruitment could be accomplished more efficiently and equitably if a single entity collected enrollment and attainment information from all higher education institutions and if military recruiters from all military branches and recruiting stations had access to it. This also would greatly reduce the burden on institutions, which currently can be asked up to 12 times — by [various] military units —for the name, address, telephone number, age, date of birth, place of birth, level of education, academic major, and degrees received for all enrolled students.”

Maybe even the trains would run more efficiently. Efficiency uber alles!

Further expressing well-known leftist concern for the armed forces, CAP argues that, “the data held by military recruiters could explore veterans’ graduation rates by college and — using data from the IRS or SSA—how much money veterans are earning three, five, and 10 years after graduating.”

This example shows that the contemplated data-collection extends far beyond a student’s college years. As privacy expert Barmak Nassirian warned with respect to a unit-record system, “the data systems in question would have very long, if not permanent, record-retention policies. They, in other words, would effectively become life-long dossiers on individuals.”

Nothing in the CAP report suggests that students or other affected individuals would have to consent to their personal data’s being used – for the rest of their lives — for purposes unrelated to its collection. Nor does the report acknowledge the dangers of allowing bureaucrats to rummage through highly personal data without ironclad limitations on what they can look for and what they can do when they find it. Does the name “Lois Lerner” ring a bell?

And what about the dangers of unauthorized access? A congressional hearing last November uncovered evidence of USED’s atrocious data “security.” USED can’t or won’t protect the data it already has – and we should hand it reams of new information about unwary citizens?

In honor of Independence Day taking place earlier this month, we should continue to reject proposals that would convert Americans citizens into data points for government research. Our ancestors fought not for efficiency, but for liberty.