Tuesday, February 2, 2010

See-Through Privacy

This article in Inside Higher Ed gave me shivers.  It’s not the fact that a Bush administration bureaucrat tried to stand in the way of an administrative end run on federally protected student privacy, or that he was allegedly fired for doing so.  What is most disturbing is the naked disdain the bureaucrats have for the law itself.

Paul Gammill, the erstwhile Director of the U.S. Education Department’s Family Policy Compliance Office, called out provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that would expand student data systems and directly conflict with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). 

The problem in his eyes, though, was that the provisions, as written, would run headlong into provisions of FERPA designed to prevent the use of individual students' educational records in ways that would violate their privacy. Specifically, he argued, the requirement that states link their postsecondary data systems to those of state work force agencies violates the federal privacy law as it is currently written.
Gammill believes that the administration and Congress could have taken steps in the drafting of the economic recovery law to avoid conflict with the privacy law, and says he suggested such changes (and would have favored them) in internal discussions last winter.

With that and a "host of other things that are problematic," department officials said "Can't we just not enforce FERPA?" Gammill asserts. His reply: "You can't do it without announcing that you're going to do it" -- which the administration and Congress could have found a way to do by inserting language into the stimulus legislation, he says.
. . .
His analysis of the illegality of the recovery law provisions and his arguments for a more forthright approach to the data systems did not go over well, Gammill says, especially with his boss, Carmel Martin, who was a senior education aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy before joining the Obama administration as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development.

Gammill recalls specifically criticizing one sentence in the stimulus legislation as "silly" -- and then having Martin tell him that she had written the sentence "with my own little pen on the Senate floor" while on Kennedy's staff.
Paul Gammill seems to be quite an unlikely warrior in the fight to keep government operations transparent. Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, brushed off Gammill as a "going-away present from the Bush administration" who would be no friend of student privacy.
Given Gammill's research background and his predisposition to believe in the limitations of student privacy, "it is very troubling that someone who's already as amenable to doing what the administration wants ends up being dismissed, perhaps because he insisted on following the black letter of federal law[.]"

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