FBI secretly searches student financial aid requests

Daniel Harju

For close to five years, the Department of Education has been secretly searching their databases, looking for suspicious names provided by the FBI. The department’s student record database, containing the personal information of about 15 million financial aid applicants, has been accessed on behalf of the FBI without notifying the students or college administrators.

The program, called “Project Strike Back,” was created after Sept. 11, 2001 by the Department of Education’s Inspection General as part of the counter-terrorism effort. The secret program was not officially acknowledged until June 2006, 10 days before it was cancelled.

In June, FBI officials acknowledged they gave the Department of Education a list of “fewer than 1,000 names” to be checked against their database. The list included names of financial aid applicants suspected of having terrorist connections, identification theft or other kinds of fraud, according to the Associated Press.

After the project’s five years in existence, Laura McGann, 24, a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, finally revealed the program.

CSUN officials deny direct knowledge of the program but concede they would not have any way of knowing what the government does with information sent to the Department of Education.

“We have not been notified,” said Lili C. Vidal, Interim Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships at CSUN. “They don’t need to contact us at all.”

According to FBI officials, the program was cancelled because agents spent a total of less than 600 hours on the project and only 50 hours in the last four years. The program’s effectiveness remains unknown but there are no known indictments resulting from Project Strike Back, according to the Associated Press.

“(The cancellation) shows how underhanded the program was,” said Rebecca Thompson, Legislative Director of the United States Student Association, a Washington lobbying group opposed to the program.

Project Strike Back was one of 23 data-mining programs by the Department of Education, and the only known project focused on counter-terrorism, according to a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office. The most common objective for data mining by the Department of Education is to detect fraud and abuse. Data-mining, or searching databases for names or other unique identifying pieces of information, is widely used by all government agencies to “analyze massive volumes of data,” according to the report.

“We don’t doubt that the data could be useful,” said Thompson, who lobbies for the privacy rights of students. “If (data-mining) is pertinent to improving higher education and policy, that’s one thing.”

To apply for federal and state financial aid, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application can be filed electronically or in paper form and is processed by the Department of Education. Once the application is entered into a database, the information is verified against other databases, but is also distributed to other agencies, such as the Pentagon.

The FAFSA requires personal and financial information such as the student’s address, date of birth, Social Security Number, driver’s license number, citizenship status, financial holdings, income statements, and parents’ income and educational background.

CSUN receives about 30,000 financial aid applications per year and ends up funding more than 18,000 students with financial aid. Fraud is uncommon and ID theft is even more rare, reported only about once every five years, according to Vidal.

A disclaimer in the fine print of the FAFSA states the Department of Education can disclose information for “routine use” without the applicant’s approval to third party agencies, including private companies who are contracted to perform data analysis.

“Students are filling out (the application) without any real idea of where that information will go,” said Thompson. “Most students don’t read that.”

Despite a disclaimer, privacy advocates argue that most students are not aware that their information might be scrutinized.

“A lot of people are concerned about this, not just privacy rights activists,” said Vidal, who suggests students read the fine print.

The U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, recently put forward a proposal to create the “P-16 Education Data System,” a national database that would collect and align student records from kindergarten through college graduation. The new database is meant to enhance accountability in education – in other words, the ability of institutions to prepare students for higher education, the workforce and the Armed Forces.

Individuals would be traceable in the system by a unique identifier, possibly their Social Security Number or another number that remains the same throughout the student’s educational career. The system would collect demographic data, information about completed and incomplete coursework, grades and other test information, in addition to all the information currently collected by FAFSA.

“This information is susceptible to security breaches,” Thompson said. She and others argue that such an all-inclusive database would not be secure enough to guarantee the full protection of sensitive student information.

In a post-9/11 environment, Vidal argues, “essentially, they can spy on any one of us, in any way, at any time.”