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Bill Would Surveil Americans For Life By Unifying Government Databases


The new movie “The Circle” demonstrates how a laudable concept—transparency—can be corrupted for very bad ends. In a speech before a millennial audience, techno-billionaire Eamon Bailey (played by Tom Hanks) persuasively argues that people’s lives should be an open book because of all the good that can come of it.

Unfortunately, some congressional Republicans seem to have internalized this soliloquy but didn’t hang around for the rest of the movie. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) have joined Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and leftist Democratic colleagues to help make Bailey’s fantasy come true.

Some background: We’ve written recently about the federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP), which Congress established to explore expanded citizen surveillance and tracking in the name of better analyzing the value of federal programs. Data-mongers who have testified before CEP have almost uniformly endorsed the idea of a federal data warehouse of highly personal citizen information.

One possibility CEP is considering is whether to allow a federal student unit-record system. This would enable the federal government to collect personally identifiable information (PII) on individual higher-education students and link that data to lifelong workforce data. Because a unit-record tracking system is anathema in a free society, federal law currently prohibits it. Opposition to a federal unit-record system spans the political spectrum, from American Principles Project to the American Civil Liberties Union.

If We’re Not Tracking You, You Must Not Be Learning

But “conservative” Rubio joined Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Washington) to erase the prohibition through the proposed Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, so higher-education data can be matched with workforce data. Otherwise, Rubio argues, how can prospective students possibly know they’ll earn more studying engineering instead of queer theory? (Note the premise of the bill: That higher education is valuable primarily to the extent it increases lifetime earnings. All the teachers out there apparently wasted their time.)

Hatch and Cassidy apparently think the Rubio bill isn’t sufficiently totalitarian. So they’ve teamed up with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) to offer their own surveillance and tracking bill, dubbed the College Transparency Act of 2017. Yes, Big Brother is now calling himself “transparency.” Is this what conservatism has become?

The new totalitarian bill seeks the same goal as Rubio’s but requires even more radical means of getting there. This legislation would establish a federal data system “to accurately evaluate student enrollment patterns, progression, completion, and postcollegiate outcomes, and higher education costs and financial aid at the student level . . . .” Thus, the new federal database would contain not aggregate data across various groups of students, but personally identifiable information on individual students. And it would be created without the input of student or parent groups. Can’t have the lab rats interfering with the experiment.

Here’s the worst part: The bill requires sharing of private student data among various federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid, the Department of Treasury, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, and the Bureau of the Census (this is a non-exclusive list). So an individual’s personally identifiable student-loan data can be linked to his tax information and his military information and his Social Security records and everything the census knows about him, which if he filled out the long form is pretty much everything about his life. There are no limits on the purposes for which this data-matching can take place. The only limits will exist in bureaucrats’ imagination.

How Is This Compatible With Privacy and Property Rights?

Although the legislation indirectly references widely accepted Fair Information Practice Principles as the standard for data compilation and maintenance, it violates many of these principles: It takes individuals’ data without their knowledge or consent; provides no right to opt out, inspect, or correct the data; includes no mandate for data-minimization; and has no limitations on data retention.

This treasure trove of personally identifiable information will be housed in a centralized federal warehouse that is routinely updated, throughout a citizen’s life. Every time he changes jobs or salary or military status or whatever, his government dossier will be revised to maintain an accurate linkage with what he studied in college. It’s lifelong surveillance in the name of transparency.

“Researchers” will benefit from access to this centralized warehouse. The bill does require that student-level data disclosed to them be “de-identified,” but as any information technology professional will tell you, good luck with that. When there are so many data points in the system on any one individual, reliable de-identification is a pipe dream.

The bill also takes a disturbingly casual approach to data security. It pays lip service to data security and data privacy, two different concepts the legislation improperly conflates (“security” means protecting the data in the system, while “privacy” means determining whether a government of the people should be collecting that data in the first place). But it doesn’t require security audits, encryption, or detection and notification of breaches.

So the federal government—which isn’t famous for doing anything well, and has already demonstrated its shocking incompetence at protecting data (see here and here)—will be creating an enormously attractive and unsecured data jackpot for hackers and thieves. Security concerns aside, compiling mountains of personal data on American citizens fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual and the government. It has an intimidating effect on citizens, even if the data is never used.

Left and Right should agree that this kind of surveillance is simply unacceptable in a free society, regardless of what Eamon Bailey thinks. All Americans need to contact Sens. Hatch, Cassidy, Warren, and Whitehouse and remind them what “limited government” means.