By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2007
The chairman of the Senate education committee urged the Bush administration yesterday to block student loan companies from accessing a national database that holds confidential information on tens of millions of students.
The request by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), came after The Washington Post reported on inappropriate searches of the database that could violate federal rules and raise concerns about data mining and abuses of privacy.
The problem has so alarmed officials at the U.S. Department of Education that they are considering a temporary shutdown of the system, which contains 60 million student records.
"Until the security of the database can be ensured, I urge you to block the use of the database by private lenders," Kennedy wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
The database, known as the National Student Loan Data System, contains Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and other sensitive financial information covered by federal privacy laws. Some worry that loan companies are trolling the system for marketing data they can use to bombard students with mass mailings.
Spokeswoman Katherine McLane said the department has spent more than $650,000 and hired a full-time employee to safeguard the system. She said the agency has already blocked thousands of users that it deemed unqualified for access after security reviews.
"The department takes these matters very seriously and invests significant planning and resources to enhance security and protect the data entrusted to it," she said in an e-mail.
Both Kennedy and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, said they would look into the management and security of the database. Kennedy asked the department to provide documents from the past five years on security breaches of the system.
"Students have a right to the strictest privacy when they provide their personal information to the federal government," Miller said in a statement. "Reports of this privacy being abused raise extremely serious questions about the Department of Education's efforts to safeguard the privacy of millions of students."