CATCH IT IF YOU CAN:
In a way, it galls me. Except for the little voice deep down - the one that keeps smirking.
In 2003, it was the Terrorism (formerly "Total") Information Awareness Office. Then "Super-Snoops." Mid-January 2004, it was news concerning a collusion between a prominent government agency giving an airline some 90 days' worth of private information on some 440,000 US citizens - to assess terrorist risks. The same month we learned that 2000 census data had been used in a data-mining effort to cross-match so-called "anomalies" with passenger lists. Cendent Corporation's "massive database'" on customers, with more than 200 pieces of cross-referenceable information. Potential of arrest for "crimes of opinion."
All this dovetails with a culture of political correctness run so completely amok, that one's views can be known - and dealt with - even before a person has had a chance to give them voice.
And our legislators, journalists and commentators are outraged. Shocked!
Since 1990 a plethora of award-winning books and articles (my own and others') have outlined the breadth and scope of data-trafficking, cross-referencing and information-sharing in the U.S. and abroad. PBS's NOVA series featured a special, "We Know Where You Live." Business Week writer/analyst, Jeffrey Rothfeder, wrote Privacy for Sale, which revealed, among other things, just how much unauthorized information the author was able to dig up, on a lark, about a certain Vice President Dan Quayle, of whom he was not particularly fond. Until, one day it wasn't so funny, and Rothfeder started writing his watershed book. Earl R. MacCormac, science advisor to the then-Governor of North Carolina, penned a lengthy document for his boss warning of a technological and legal nightmare. MacCormac started with a scrap of paper and explained just how much personal information he could locate about someone via computerized cross-matching in just 24 hours.
The bottom line? Your privacy's toast.
My own particular emphasis was the unethical use of schools and children, an angle none of the other writers up to that time had looked into. I focused on a little-known technique (outside of advertising and marketing circles) known as "psychographic surveying" with a view to altering attitudes. Then I traced the evolution of automatic transfer capability to federal and international databases from 1969 onward. A definition of psychographics is found in Webster's New World Communication and Media Dictionary: "the study of social class based upon the demographics income, race, color, religion, and personality traits." These characteristics, says the dictionary, "can be measured to predict behavior" - prediction being the point of the exercise.
How? By collecting personal information, especially "lifestyle data," which includes opinions and preferences, via surveys, tests, and questionnaires; cross-matching the responses with various public and private records; and then applying a mathematical model (a) to predict individual and group reactions to future, hypothetical scenarios, and (b) to find areas of commonality among socioeconomic, demographic, political and religious groups.
As early as 1989, evidence started accumulating concerning questions falling under the rubric of psychographics which, inexplicably, were being included in standardized school achievement tests. The first what-would-you-do-if queries and word-association games passed off as vocabulary questions I saw were test items from Pennsylvania's Educational Quality Assessment in 1985. As time went on, test creators got better at devising questions in such a way that the "target subjects," as it was termed, would be unaware just how much they were divulging.
Soon, technical papers detailing state and nationwide plans for compiling and storing computerized, private information were uncovered - the U.S. Department of Education's "Measuring the Quality of Education" (1981) and "A Plan for the Redesign of the Elementary and Secondary Data Collection Program" (1986). The next shocker featured justifications concerning "the permissibility of deception" in school testing based on "the rights of an institution to obtain information necessary to achieve its goals," set out by behavioral scientists Richard Wolf and Ralph Tyler.
Wolf pointed out in "Crucial Issues in Testing," that privacy implications aside, there "are occasions in which the test constructor [finds it necessary] to outwit the subject so that he cannot guess what information he is revealing." Wolf and Tyler both emanated from the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Tyler was also a former Commissioner of Education under the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare - which seemed rather a conflict of interest at the time, but apparently nobody cared. He was largely responsible for creating our nationwide test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Under separate contract he wrote, or weighed in heavily, on at least 12 state tests - called "assessments" to hedge the legal definition of testing.
So offended were citizens when news of attitudinal questions incorporated into achievement tests hit the presses with my first book in 1991 that lines to the Department were temporarily jammed with irate callers.
"Rubbish," howled Robert J. Coldiron, head of Pennsylvania's Chief of Testing and Evaluation at the State Education Agency in Harrisburg in a Letter to the Editor in Education Week.
"Nonsense," insisted Ohio's then-chief of testing when I was invited to Columbus to speak at a state board meeting at the insistence of parents there.
With my second book in 1994, officials from various agencies - among them, the National Center for Education Statistics - were asking for a meeting with me to "prove" none of this was happening. Emerson Elliott, then-head of NCES urged: "Come see the new National Assessment tests for yourself. Oh . And by the way, that computer you named - the Elementary and Secondary Integrated Data System - it doesn't exist."
And so on, in one state after another on my lecture circuit - New Hampshire, Nebraska, Indiana, Maryland. Meanwhile, I was amassing enough proof from informants, anonymous and otherwise, to wallpaper the entire Department with phony test questions.
Then there was the House and Senate. The then-legislative assistant for education to Senator Charles E. Grassley - the same fellow now demanding congressional review of the huge profiling database about to be brought online to snoop for potential terrorists via the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) - huffed that my allegations were "alarmist" and could never happen here. By the time my third and final book, Cloning of the American Mind, hit the street in 1998, the official tune had changed. Well, they said, there were "a few demographic" as well as "noncognitive" questions included on state and national tests. Then, testing companies admitted that "some" questions were aimed at assessing "extenuating factors" (including home life, parents' habits, worldviews, magazines, financial status, etc.) which might affect a child's learning. Finally, curriculums in subjects like health and sex required some method, after all, of estimating and predicting their impact, above and beyond "mere" right or wrong answers.
All this was passed off as part of an increased emphasis on accountability. As for my earlier allusions to the Department of Education's Elementary and Secondary Integrated Data System, taken from Appendix E in the 1988 Nation's Report Card: Well, heh, heh, you see, there were ongoing technical difficulties in computer compatibility at the state and local levels; so the Department of Education, through the Council of Chief State School Officers, launched a series of "incentives" to improve matters until there emerged a bigger and better version of the system, the SPEEDE/ExPRESS, into which all student, teacher, and school records have flowed since the mid-1990s. So many computer experts were there on the project that Florida's Associate Commissioner of Education, Cecil Golden, was once prompted to remark (prophetically, as it turned out): "[L]ike those assembling an atom bomb, very few of them understand what they're building, and won't until we put all the parts together."
For the past decade students have had to plow through not only quasi-tests called "assessments," featuring all sorts of questions about their parents and home life, but a multitude of intimate and personal surveys, nearly all of them computerized, as part of their class work. Where do you think newspapers get statistics like "12% of students say they have had intercourse by age 15," or smoked a joint in the last 6 months, or dislike their parents?
But, of course, these responses are anonymous, you say.
Dream on. Surreptitious "slugging," "bar-coding," "sticky-labeling," and "embedding identifiers": All these techniques, and more, are described at length in the testing contracts and literature, should anyone bother to read them.
Children have always been the consummate sources of data, notoriously undiscerning about the kinds of information they disclose. Like all computerized facts and figures, youngsters' responses can be cross-matched with everything from medical and health insurance records to credit card transactions. But no legislation or guidelines have emerged from our hallowed regulative bodies to sufficiently put the brakes on the tremendous upswing of such activity over the past two decades. The 80s and 90s were spent largely in denial. If anything, our leaders made it worse by swallowing malarkey about the supposed benefits of mental health profiling, personality inventories and behavioral screening - to identify potential troublemakers and ensure public safety. Society's reward? More Columbine-like atrocities - and a near-perfect political weapon, now neatly in place.
I used to be asked on talk shows: Who would ever use such a thing? What kind of democracy would amass information, and snoop on its own citizens?
None, of course - unless national security were at stake, unless there were a dire threat, some trigger. September 11 was that trigger. Sleeper cells of terrorists are that threat. We can argue all day about porous borders, lax immigration control, permissive childrearing and bleeding-heart responses to crime as contributing factors to our public and private security woes. None of that matters anymore. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act - like the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act, the 1974 Privacy Act, the 1978 Right to Financial Privacy Act, the 1988 Cross-Matching and Privacy Protection Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, and all the various other incarnations - are virtually meaningless. They're so filled with loopholes they look like Swiss cheese. Not only is every scintilla of your personal information available to government agencies (both national and international), but incorporated is a capability to assess anything from parental fitness and tax fraud to a child's state of mind. Not only that, so-called "directory" information - including a youngster's name, address, phone number, picture, and e-mail address - can be released without consent to predators.
So now our revered legislators and media moguls are worried about amassing dossiers, covert cross-matching, government prying, and freedom of conscience.
Well, it's a tad late, Suckers. The horse has busted out the barn door and is galloping down the street. Go catch it if you can.
[Note: This piece was first published in Media Bypass Magazine in January 2003. In light of recent events, it is more true now than it was even then, and the second paragraph and third reflect the news updates.]
© 2004 Beverly Eakman - All Rights Reserved
Beverly Eakman is an Educator, 9 years: 1968-1974, 1979-1981. Specialties: English and Literature.
Science Editor, Technical Writer and Editor-in-Chief of official newspaper, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1974-1979. Technical piece, "David, the Bubble Baby," picked up by popular press and turned into a movie starring John Travolta.
Chief speech writer, National Council for Better Education, 1984-1986; for the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution, 1986-1987; for the Voice of America Director, 1987-1989; and for U.S. Department of Justice, Gerald R. Regier, 1991-1993.
Author: 3 books on education and data-trafficking
since 1991, including the internationally acclaimed Cloning
of the American Mind: Eradicating Morality Through Education. Executive
Director, National Education Consortium. Website: BeverlyE.com
"Then, testing companies admitted that "some" questions were aimed at assessing "extenuating factors" (including home life, parents' habits, worldviews, magazines, financial status, etc.) which might affect a child's learning."