U.S. Blocks Lenders From Student Database

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The U.S. Department of Education yesterday blocked lending companies from accessing a national database with confidential information on tens of millions of students after some companies were found to have searched the data in ways that violate federal rules.

The temporary restriction came two days after The Washington Post reported on the improper searches and on concerns raised about data mining and abuses of privacy of the 60 million students in the system.

In a letter sent last night to the chairman of the Senate education committee, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the department and its inspector general will review unauthorized access to the database, known as the National Student Loan Data System.

"The Department is vigilant in its monitoring for unauthorized use of NSLDS and closely safeguards access to the system," she wrote. She added that the agency had blocked 246 users from the student loan industry thought to have engaged in inappropriate searches and thousands more deemed unqualified for access after previous security reviews.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee chairman, had urged the department to take further action Sunday after the report in The Post.

"I appreciate the Secretary's willingness to take action to protect personal student information," Kennedy said in a statement last night. "I look forward to working with her to ensure that students receive their loans without sacrificing their privacy."

Department officials have for months debated shutting down access to the database, which contains student Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and sensitive financial information covered by privacy laws. Some worry that loan companies are trolling the system for marketing data they can use to bombard students with mass mailings.

The temporary shutdown will block lenders, loan holders, guaranty agencies and other industry-connected users from the database. But agency officials said it would not affect students or schools. The department "will work to minimize any disruption in service," Spellings wrote.

Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the department, said the database shutdown was unrelated to a malfunction of the agency's servers yesterday that shut down its Web site and prevented employees from accessing e-mail or files most of the day.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company