Lenders Misusing Student Database – Improper Searches Raise Privacy Fears

Some lending companies with access to a national database that contains confidential information on tens of millions of student borrowers have repeatedly searched it in ways that violate federal rules, raising alarms about data mining and abuse of privacy, government and university officials said.

The improper searching has grown so pervasive that officials said the Education Department is considering a temporary shutdown of the government-run database to review access policies and tighten security. Some worry that businesses are trolling for marketing data they can use to bombard students with mass mailings or other solicitations.

Students’ Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and sensitive financial information such as loan balances are in the database, which contains 60 million student records and is covered by federal privacy laws. “We are just in shock that student data could be compromised like this,” said Nancy Hoover, director of financial aid at Denison University in Ohio.

Education Department spokeswoman Katherine McLane said the agency has spent more than $650,000 since 2003 to safeguard the database. The department has blocked thousands of users that it deemed unqualified for access after security reviews, McLane said, and it has blocked 246 users from the student loan industry for inappropriately accessing the data.

{Companies with access to a national student database use the data in ways that were never intended and without student consent for those uses. The very same kind of data mining and misuse takes place with private and government databases of Americans’ health records. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield aggregates and sells the medical and claims data it holds on 79 million Americans, IMS Health sells identifiable prescription data to drug companies and insurers without patient permission (in 2005 their revenues were $1.75 billion), and hospitals sell identifiable patient data to boost revenues. Congress should act to end the widespread and illegal business of data mining–not just from government databases, but from ALL corporate databases. Americans should control who can see and use their sensitive personal electronic data. No one with access to a database should be able to use it for whatever purposes they want. ~ Dr. Deborah Peel, Patient Privacy Rights}

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