Forces target US campuses

July 15, 2005

The US military is bypassing longstanding privacy laws to collect student information from universities as it seeks to bolster the number of recruits to the armed forces, which is falling in the wake of the Iraq War.

Under the plan, the Department of Defence would add the information to an existing database of millions of Americans aged 16 and older: it would include their ethnic backgrounds, major fields of study, academic progress, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers.

Several universities have objected to the plan. The University of California, Los Angeles, indicated that it would not hand over any information without a court order.

A 1974 federal law prohibits universities from releasing personal information about students, though that has been muddied by a more recent regulation forcing universities that receive government grants to co-operate with military recruiters.

That requirement is due to be challenged in the Supreme Court this autumn.

Some institutions, including UCLA, also have their own privacy policies in place.

The Washington Post , which first disclosed the plan, reported that the Defence Department had hired a private marketing firm called BeNow to compile what officials call the Joint Advertising and Market Research Recruiting Database.

The database, which will ultimately include 12 million names, is meant "to provide a single central facility within the Defence Department to compile, process and distribute files of individuals who meet the age and mini-mum school requirements for military service", according to an announcement about the plan that was published the Government's Federal Register in May.

Several higher education organisations have expressed concern about the move, including the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Military officials said the controversy was much ado about nothing.

"Contacting young Americans, making them aware of their option in the service is critical to the success of the volunteer [military]. It is an activity that Congress sanctioned in statutory language 23 years ago," David Chu, Deputy Undersecretary of Defence for Personnel and Readiness, says in a Pentagon statement. "This is not new. It was done by the department in various ways over the years."

Dr Chu says the database will be used only to contact people and to send them information about joining the armed forces.

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