Military database of potential recruits rankles privacy groups

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The military's attempt to boost recruiting by developing a database full of millions of names is drawing new fire from privacy advocates who are worried it could be a harbinger for broader government tracking of personal information.

More than 100 groups led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, but also including the American Civil Liberties Union and Rock the Vote, wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last week demanding the military Joint Advertising and Market Research Studies unit abandon the database. They warned it carries a "potential for abuse and the threat to the personal privacy rights of a generation of American youth."

"We request that the project be immediately ended," they said in a letter.

The database fight highlights what happens when government employs big-business marketing techniques for recruitment purposes. The military says it needs a database to more effectively target potential recruits, just like private industry.

Privacy advocates, meanwhile, worry that the laws that protect the public by forcing big business to correct or eliminate some information in databases don't apply to the government. They fear that erroneous, derogatory or misleading information could be retained for years.

The Defense Department launched the database in 2002, when Congress combined some individual military service recruiting functions. Privacy groups first got wind of it earlier this year when a change in the the department's oversight for joint recruiting and plans to purchase student lists led to a public notice being issued about its use.

Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a spokeswoman for the Joint Advertising unit, said the database was mandated by Congress and combines records from state motor vehicle departments, the Selective Service, together with some commercial databases to provide information on graduating high school and college students.

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Included in the information for some people are favorite subjects and grade point averages. She said the database contains scrambled Social Security numbers to help weed out duplicates, but not actual numbers.

Privacy groups are arguing the data should never have been gathered under the Privacy Act and are now trying to head off its use.

"There was a sense it is problematic for civil liberties," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's being promoted as being for recruiting purposes, but the concern is [information] will be traded and shared like any information the government collects and agencies will be using it for who knows what."

Ms. Krenke acknowledged any information gathered could be passed on but said the Defense Department hasn't provided any other agencies information and has no intention to do so. She declined to comment directly on the letter.

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