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Published: Wednesday, 4/27/2005

Secure student data

GIVEN the growing concern Americans have about privacy and identity theft, federal education officials would be well-advised to alter their plans for a massive computer database that would track college students by their name and Social Security number.

The purpose of the proposed database - to gauge graduation rates and help measure quality of higher education - is a valid one, but the possibility of abuse of students' personal information is too great.

Fortunately, officials in the U.S. Department of Education seem to appreciate the potential privacy problems inherent in keeping track of the academic progress of 15 million students enrolled in 6,000 colleges and universities.

One counter-proposal under consideration is to assign each student a bar code. That seems to be a reasonable solution; names and Social Security numbers are too easy to turn into cash in the marketplace of incredibly detailed information about people that has grown up in recent years.

Abuses of such information have made Americans increasingly suspicious, and not a little bit paranoid, of databases kept by both government agencies and private businesses.

One notable example is the recent problem at ChoicePoint Inc., a Georgia company, where criminals using fake documents gained access to about 145,000 customer records, including motor vehicle reports, police reports, license and deed transfers, and military records.

Still, education officials have a plausible reason for keeping track of the academic progress of college students. Accurate data on enrollment, student aid, and graduation rates should be helpful in formulating public policy, at least in theory.

Some of that information already is compiled, but not in complete fashion. Moreover, students are so mobile these days that frequent transfers make graduation rates difficult to gauge.

A feasibility study of the proposed database concludes that the information could be made secure, although it is safe to say that a computer hasn't been built yet that can't be hacked. And misuse of their personal data is what worries Americans most.

If the Education Department can satisfy those concerns, the student database could be a valuable source of information.

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