Data-Trafficking, Privacy, and Education


February 1, 1998

Today’s school tests and surveys include a sophisticated behavioral component that encompasses a wide variety of personality and opinion data, nailing down student proclivities, social attitudes, and parent-inculcated world views.

Some of these instruments are explicit and blatant, others more subtle and disguised (labeled “assessments” rather than “tests” or “surveys” to counter suspicion). Either way, personality testing, and the psychotherapeutic curriculums that ensue, pose a high-tech, Orwellian threat to family privacy and to a child’s future employability.

The “confidential” label attached to modern testing and survey instruments is invariably taken for anonymity by most parents and even teachers, thereby masking a larger agenda: (1) introduction of a carefully targeted curriculum that markets “preferred” viewpoints to pupils; and, more ominously, (2) promulgation of a eugenic-screening device for psychological “defects.” Included in the “defective” category are tendencies that might promote “undesirable” attitudes (in the vernacular, those that “produce a rigid or underdeveloped belief system”).

Meanwhile, today’s ever-increasing computer cross-referencing capability—from medical databases to motor vehicle, title, census, insurance, IRS, and school records—has launched an information industry filled with data-traffickers and information brokers, some licit and others black-market, all catering to the needs of employers, credit bureaus, universities, corporate spies, and government. Unsurprisingly, data-laundering has become a lucrative spinoff field, as victims of this electronic wizardry try to get back at, or around, the system.

A list obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, names some twenty nine organizations that are given automatic access to data from the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), which contains demographic and psychological profiling data (“psychographics”) interspersed among legitimate academic questions. Most NAEP information is held on a mainframe computer at Boeing Computer Systems, which, for a fee, sets up a computer ID for researchers. The rest is stored at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH’s close cousin, the National Institute of Mental Health, has long provided enormous grants to eugenic researchers, such as Dr. Linda Erlenmeyer-Kimling and Irving I. Gottesman of the American Eugenics Society (for obvious reasons, the organization changed its name to the Society for the Study of Social Biology in 1972), to locate “markers” of psychological and other mental anomalies inside and outside of the classroom setting. The latest find: Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) as a supposed “market” for adult schizophrenia. Under the umbrellas of mental health and population control, the American Eugenics Society-cum-Society for the Study of Social Biology has worked hand-in-glove for years with the Population Council, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the American Psychological Association, and the Institute for Behavioral Genetics researching defective behaviors.

Unfortunately, anything passing for a research group—even a good hacker—can access personal and sensitive information. Some black-market organizations are so bold as to advertise their services in brochures. Renowned author and investigative journalist Arnaud deBorchgrave reported in an article last year that “[o]f the 428 information specialists in Fortune 500 companies surveyed by the Security Institute of San Francisco, 42 percent acknowledge there had been unauthorized penetration of their computer systems.” Business journalist Jeffrey Rothfeder noted in his watershed 1992 book, Privacy for Sale, that “outsiders who have no legal right to know about . . . databanks or their contents are inexplicably given free access to them. Information in 56 percent of government databases is examined regularly by private corporations and educational institutions, with few questions asked, according to the GAO (Government Accounting Office). In almost all cases, the government doesn’t even bother asking what the data is being used for.”

So far, no one has discovered a viable way to write a law that distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate cross-matching, and almost everything nowadays is computer-scannable from your grocery shopping tabs and warranty cards to responses on tests and surveys. Insurance companies and credit bureaus, for example, routinely cross-reference information. The parent whose child divulges which magazine, modern conveniences, and medications are in his home, or the stores most frequented by family members, has no idea this “lifestyle-data” can be cross-matched with responses relating to politics, religion, or social attitudes. More significantly, few parents recognize that experts can apply a statistical modeling process to such computerized information that serves as a predictor of future behavior. The term “behavior” in this context does not mean “decorum.”

Until recently, most education policymakers, like marketing firms, were after aggregate, or group, data. Schools first started asking kids personal questions (mostly demographic) back in the 1960s, inputting the results into the Common Core of Data, the Universe Files, and the Longitudinal Studies. Within twenty years, computer technology had taken a quantum leap. Today, the primary education data-transfer system is the SPEEDE/ExPRESS, established by Congress under the Hawkins-Stafford Education Improvement Amendments of 1988. Somewhere along the line, education’s political extremists—the National Education Association and the Carnegie Corporation, for example—discovered what advertisers already knew, that they could predict probable future behavior and seek to alter it, by targeting well-marketed advertising packages to an unsuspecting populace. Since pupils in the classroom comprise the ultimate “captive audience,” it was a short leap of logic to recognize curriculum as the perfect marketing vehicle. By the time Dustin Heuston of the World Institute of Computer-Assisted Technology uttered his prophetic assertion—”We’ve been staggered by realizing that the computer has the capability to act as if it were ten of the top psychologists working with one student. . . . Won’t it be wonderful when no one can get between that child and that curriculum?”—attitude manipulation in the classroom was nearly a fait accompli. Experts like Archie LaPointe (National Institute of Education) and behavioral scientists Ralph Tyler and Richard Wolf were writing about the need for surreptitious techniques of data collection and student identification as well as unified coding and standardized definitions to enhance cross-referencing—from elementary to high schools to the university, and on into the workplace. As far back as 1971, Richard Wolf was addressing an admitted privacy problem. He cited “the rights of an institution to obtain information necessary to achieve its goals” to justify what might be considered entrapment in school testing.

By the 1990s, the capability to download psychologically manipulative, politically charged materials directly to students via personal computers was a done deed. Trained psychologists could monitor pupil “progress” unobtrusively in a programmed-learning environment, and parents would never know the difference. Today, satellite-based information networks like the NCLIN—the National Community Learning and Information Network, first launched in Pennsylvania—are being connected to classrooms nationwide.

Curriculums accessed directly by computer, as opposed to those disseminated by teachers or taken home by students, can be tailored to the proclivities of specific children. The concept is based on the same market axiom that determines the content of your junk mail . . . all consumer behavior is predictable. What experts need to know are the right indicators, the right predictors, and some idea concerning the circumstances under which a child will alter his or her viewpoints in order to “apply psychotherapeutic techniques to a non-clinical setting.” Thus, the weird-sounding hypothetical nature of many of today’s multiple-choice test and survey questions, and the underhanded student-identification methods, from simple bar-coding to complex methods like “slugging” and “sticky-labeling.”

Americans who balk operate under the false assumption that they have a legal right to privacy. The fact is, there is scant case law—i.e., legal precedents—on the issue. Existing privacy legislation, such as the Privacy Act of 1974, is full of loopholes and lacks substantive penalties for noncompliance. The only time privacy rights have been invoked successfully is in the case of abortion.

Of course, if one faction can target psychologically manipulative fare to children, so can another. Today the gay lobby, tomorrow the “skinheads.” The more uneducated the population becomes in terms of hard knowledge—especially in disappearing disciplines like philosophy, rhetoric, and logic—the easier it is to compromise freedom of thought and conscience through a convenient marriage of psychology, advertising, and technology.

With the looming merger of Labor and Education via the Careers Act and School-to-Work initiatives, featuring computerized transfer mechanisms like WORKLINK, not to mention wrap-around health-care services that specialize in mental and reproductive “hygiene” coming to the school through Medicaid loopholes, a whole new slate of civil-rights abuses awaits the nation’s youngest Americans over that much-touted “bridge to the 21st century.”


  • B.K. Eakman

    Beverly K. Eakman is the author of seven books covering education policy, mental-health fraud, data-trafficking, privacy and political strategy, with dozens of keynote speeches, feature articles and op-eds to her credit. Her most recent work is Agenda Games: How Today’s High-Stakes Political Combat Works (Midnight Whistler Publishers, 2012).

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