Fears for privacy in student tracking

June 16, 2000

A small minority of the 500,000 international students who come to the United States may exploit their student status to support terrorist activity, the National Commission on Terrorism has warned. The commission was set up by Congress two years ago in response to the bombings of the United States embassies in East Africa.

American university officials reacted with alarm to the commission's proposal that the movements - and even the academic interests - of international students be monitored as part of anti-terrorism efforts.

Tracking whether international students changed their area of study has been suggested among other proposals. The commission gave the example of a switch from English literature to nuclear physics, saying that this might arouse suspicion.

In a pilot scheme at 20 universities in the American South, the immigration and naturalisation service is already keeping close tabs on foreign students. It has been recommended that this scheme be expanded nationally.

"We do believe there is some value in having a nationwide programme to carry out what has been, for decades, the obligation of the universities," said commission chairman, L. Paul Bremer, a former ambassador-at-large for anti-terrorism.

But university authorities said that monitoring international students more closely would violate student privacy.

Mr Bremer responded to the criticism by saying that the commission was proposing only streamlining the student visa process, not expanding the existing powers of the immigration service. But the government does not monitor students' academic studies, as the commission has recommended it should.

Government officials have already increased their scrutiny of overseas students. After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, immigration officials were unable to find a suspect who had entered the country on a student visa and stayed after it expired. Since then, the immigration service has been centralising all student visa information.

Like Mr Bremer, the Clinton administration seemed to back away slightly from the commission's proposal in the wake of the resulting criticism.

"In general, our policy is to encourage more international students to attend US schools," said state department spokesman Philip Reeker, who pointed out that students from overseas contribute $9 billion a year to the American economy.

"The goodwill that these students bear will, I think, in the future constitute one of our greatest foreign policy assets, and we've supported that," Mr Reeker said.

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