Pentagon builds a database to recruit teens for military

Privacy advocates say the program is a 'bad idea.'

Two years after terminating their Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, Pentagon officials face another privacy battle over the legitimacy of a database initiative that identifies U.S. teenagers for military service.

The Joint Advertising and Market Research Recruiting Database became public after a comment period for the project ended last month and a privacy group called for its cancellation.

The controversy resulted from the military's collection of personal information about 16- to 18-year-olds, including their Social Security numbers. It also stemmed from DOD's announcement of the initiative in May, even though it started in 2003.

An official at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an advocacy group, called the military's database initiative a "bad idea" and appealed to DOD to scrap its proposal.

"The collection of this information is not consistent with the Privacy Act, which was passed by Congress to reduce the government's collection of personal information on Americans," said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counselor and director of West Coast operations at EPIC.

EPIC officials want DOD to allow teenagers to opt out of the database. And they don't want the database to include Social Security numbers, Hoofnagle said.

But Pentagon officials defended the initiative. Speaking to journalists after testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 23, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the department takes privacy seriously.

"We always worry about privacy issues, and certainly, as you know, we've put together a panel on that subject, distinguished Americans who've looked at issues as they've come along as technologies have changed and circumstances" have changed, Rumsfeld said.

The panel he referred to is DOD's Technology and Privacy Advisory Committee, created in 2003 to advise Rumsfeld on legal and policy considerations regarding public data collected as part of the war on terrorism. The idea for the committee resulted primarily from privacy concerns pertaining to TIA, an initiative to scan public and private databases for potential activity that could be linked to terrorists. Congress terminated funding for TIA later that year.

David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, oversees the database initiative. He clarified how the database handles Social Security numbers during a media briefing June 23.

"We do get the Social Security numbers, and they're used in a scrambled manner from the Selective Service System file," Chu said. "They're used to purge the list of duplicates and to ensure its cohesion, but they are not maintained."

Air Force Col. Ellen Krenke, a DOD spokeswoman, said employees in DOD's Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies Office who administer the military recruiting database use Social Security numbers only to ensure accuracy and prevent duplication. They do not distribute them.

BeNOW, a database marketing services firm in Wakefield, Mass., assists DOD with the initiative, but a company operator referred questions to Krenke.

Defense officials have described the military recruiting database as providing "a single central facility within the Department of Defense to compile, process and distribute files of individuals who meet age and minimum school requirements for military service."

Dan Goure, a vice president at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank, said he supports the database. The growing economy, fewer U.S. teenagers and the global war on terrorism will continue to make military recruitment difficult, he said.

"There is a problem with recruiting that is likely to grow worse with Iraq and even after the conclusion of Iraq," Goure said. "The question ought to be: Do you want a fully capable, all-volunteer military?"

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