Database Draws Ire of Privacy Groups

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WASHINGTON ( -- Privacy advocates want the U.S. military to stop developing a database of millions of names, warning that instead of being used for recruiting purposes the database could lead to broader government tracking of personal information.
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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been asked to cease compiling a vast database of personal information about U.S. teenagers the military is targeting for recruitment.

Privacy rights groups
More than 100 groups, lead by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and including the American Civil Liberties Union and Rock the Vote, wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last week demanding the military's 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 many ways the database fight highlights the inherent issues with government efforts to employ big-business marketing techniques in targeting recruits. The military says it needs a database to more effectively target potential recruits, just like the private sector.

Above the law?
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 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 Defense Department's oversight for joint recruiting, in addition to plans to purchase student lists, led to the issuance of a public notice about its use.

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

Mullen Advertising, Wenham, Mass., which is agency for the military's outreach efforts, is supposed to use the database for marketing, though BeNow, a division of Equifax, actually maintains it.

Privacy groups argue the data should never have been gathered under the Privacy Act and are trying to head off its use. They worry that once gathered and stored by the government, the information could be used years later for other purposes.

Civil liberties threat
"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.

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