Pentagon's Vast Recruiting Database Prompts Privacy Fears

The Pentagon has been eagerly compiling databases of potential new recruits in order to keep troop levels up in the face of the continuing actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But has this aggressive recruiting effort gone too far?

Concerned citizens from across the ideological spectrum have raised concerns about the military’s Joint Advertising and Market Research Studies (JAMRS) recruiting database system. The JAMRS database is a large, detailed repository of information on virtually every American between the ages of 16 to 25. The breadth of information in the system came to light last May when the Defense Department published a notice about JAMRS in the Federal Register.

According to that notice, the data in JAMRS encompasses: Full name, date of birth, gender, address, city, state, zip code, and where available Social Security Number (SSN), e-mail address, ethnicity, telephone number, high school name, graduation date, grade point average (GPA) code, education level, college intent (if documented), military interest (if documented), field of study, current college attending, ASVAB Test date, ASVAB Armed Forces Qualifying Test Category Score.

The Privacy Act of 1976 requires that notice of a new system of records be published in the Federal Register 30 days before its creation. Yet the May 2005 FR notice on the reorganized JAMRS database indicated it had already been in operation for some time. That simple fact seems to be a prima facie violation of the Privacy Act. The DOD has since claimed this reorganized JAMRS is not a new system of records. That begs the question: Why was a Privacy Act notice published at all?

Military recruiting isn’t the only thing this sensitive data on 30 million Americans could be used for. Under the Privacy Act, the data is subject to be disclosed to other federal agencies, as well as local and state governments, under the "blanket routine uses" waiver. Even disclosures to foreign governments are covered under "routine uses."

There are also questions about how private-sector contractors working on JAMRS use this data. The JAMRS system, according to the FR notice, is located at and managed by a marketing firm called BeNOW. BeNOW is a subcontractor working for a JAMRS contractor named Mullen. BeNOW has no privacy policy, which means DOD has no assurance the data gathered for JAMRS will be used for other commercial purposes. The Pentagon should immediately take steps to make sure the information held by BeNOW has not been and will not be used for any purpose outside the JAMRS system.

The Defense Department also uses questionable private contractors to collect the data for JAMRS. American Student List Corp. and Student Marketing Group Corp. are two such data-brokers. Both have been fined by the Federal Trade Commission and faced lawsuits from the New York State Attorney General for their deceptive practices in collecting personal data from students. The Privacy Act and internal Pentagon regulations require this sort of information be directly obtained by the DOD when possible. Yet DOD has persisted in employing these firms with a fraudulent past for such sensitive work. Nor is it clear what information JAMRS is gathering from colleges, either directly or indirectly. If JAMRS is gathering college GPAs (the FR notice isn’t clear whether high school or college GPAs are collected), how is it doing so? Various federal laws bar college registrars from giving out GPA’s to recruiters.

There is also the question of the "No Child Left Behind Act" (NCLB), perhaps the largest-ever expansion of federal power over American education. As part of NCLB, high schools are required to report names, addresses, and phone numbers of students to military recruiters. But high school students are supposed to be able to opt out. Yet the Vermont Guardian and others have reported that some kids who "opted out" have been recruited anyway.

Even when students successfully opt out of JAMRS, that data is still maintained in database "suppression files." Cynics suggest DOD is holding these detailed profiles for a possible draft, so recruits can be slotted into optimal positions regardless of their wishes vis-à-vis military service.

Even those who support a strong and robust recruiting program for our volunteer military should be concerned about the Pentagon’s actions regarding JAMRS. Building a vigorous all-volunteer military should not need to sacrifice the privacy of Americans. The services should be distinguished enough to sell themselves. That they are not suggests larger problems with the military’s current leadership, mission, or both.