Big Brother Comes to Campus

A proposed college database would violate student privacy

Imagine a government that kept tabs on every single student at every university, with a database that could track everything from academic records to sports teams. This is exactly what would happen under a proposal making its way through the policy apparatus of the U.S. Department of Education. The plan is unwarranted and dangerous, violating student privacy and carrying a serious risk of abuse.

The purported purpose of the measure is to better track students’ progress and help policymakers figure out where they are going wrong. The database would include students who drop out of college or transfer between institutions. Universities both private and public would be required to yield the data, potentially facing a cutoff of federal funding if they refuse. And there’s no way for students to opt out.

Students’ right to privacy should come before big government projects with no proven results. There is a reason for the Education and Privacy Rights Act, the law currently on the books that restricts federally funded universities from releasing private data without the explicit consent of students or their parents. Under the current proposal, this law would be amended or revoked, and students’ personal information would be left unprotected.

The potential for government abuse of the database is extensive. Other agencies with their own agendas, such as the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security, would face few obstacles if they wanted to gain access to students’ records. And we’re not talking about government agencies rooting out young terrorists here. The history of surveillance measures in this country shows that such agencies have seldom passed up the chance to snoop on and disrupt the lives of law-abiding citizens.

Indeed, from the PATRIOT Act on, the Bush Administration has failed to win the trust of those concerned with the civil liberties of students. Earlier this year, federal authorities in Iowa served a subpoena ordering Drake University to turn over the records of student peace activists. Just last month, the FBI conducted raids on student dorms at North Carolina State University in the wake of a non-student demonstration in another part of town. And immigrant students have been subjected to especially intense surveillance under the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

But this time, it’s not just politically involved and foreign born students who would be affected. The proposal calls for a database designed to track every last one of the approximately 15 million college students in the United States. While better data on these students is a worthy goal, there are more effective means of obtaining this information. The Department of Education could actually hear from students, for example, through surveys and interviews. It may not fit as nicely on a chart, but it can yield the necessary information without sacrificing privacy.

Citizens must guard against any attempt to expand the power of government to monitor their private lives. Under the pretense of collecting better statistics, the Department of Educaton is now seeking one of the most dramatic expansions of this power since the PATRIOT Act. We must not be blind to its dangers. Universities should stand up for their students and keep Big Brother off campus.