Government’s Latest Personal Information Grab

When it comes to light that corporations such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft are collecting personal data, Americans rightly raise Cain. But who notices when government does the same thing?

The federal government is in the process of linking various databases of very personal information from a wide range of state and federal agencies. It wants to track individuals from kindergarten through death. It’s stated purposes include the ability to conduct more effective research and better evaluate education and workforce training programs. But dig a little deeper, and it’s clear that what’s at stake is whether government should be able to shape the lives and character of citizens.

The federal Department of Labor is funding states to develop comprehensive databases of citizens’ personal information. Labor offers an example of how the database system should track a Jane Doe. It will follow her as she drops out of school, accesses government programs, and accepts a job in another state. Along the way, says Labor, it should access educational, workforce, mental health, public assistance, and prisoner-reintegration records. It lists the state workforce councils – federally funded entities managed by select private interests – as key stakeholders in the project.

Labor is now awarding grants to twelve states to develop such tracking systems, called the Workforce Data Quality Initiative. This follows an earlier round of similar grants to thirteen other states. Labor’s stated purpose is to link its data operation with a massive data-collection effort underway at the Department of Education.

Education launched its database project in 2009. To receive money from the Stimulus bill, a state had to agree to construct massive databases of private student and family data, blandly called Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDs). All fifty states took the stimulus money, and promised to build the databases.

The Department of Education also claims that the data-sharing is only for purposes of research and evaluating programs. But it wants much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic scores (not that those are any of its business). It wants information on health history, religious affiliation, voter registration, extracurricular activities, assessments of mental and social well-being, and safety education. All told, it wants over 400 data categories collected. This is the data that Labor looks forward to accessing.

The implication of this Education-Labor joint venture is clear: To the federal government, the education system should be a training ground for employers. Under that view, government social service agencies and public-private partnerships become stakeholders in the education of children. It is a radical departure from principle that a child’s upbringing is the realm of parents and the parent-child relationship.

Beyond the ever-present danger of unauthorized use or negligent release of information, the federal government has arrogated a right to collect information and share it with other agencies and individuals without the consent of the individual. Where have the people, or of more importance, the individual, consented to government’s tracking their lives across states lines, from job to job, in sickness and in health?

The grave danger here is that government will use the data to conjure “studies” showing that particular behaviors and mindsets make poor students, poor employees, or poor citizens.  Sound far-fetched?  In the Florida legislature, a subcommittee recently approved a bill under which schools will grade parents on criteria set by the school board.  The “evaluation data” will become a part of the student’s permanent record and, under 2012 regulatory changes pushed through by the Obama Administration, could be shared with any government or private entity.

There’s a free-market problem as well. Government cannot anticipate the power of entrepreneurship and the creativity of the free market.  Attempts to use data to craft the workforce invariably favor the status quo. The state workforce boards, for instance, are federally funded but controlled by private-sector members who bring their own biases to the table.

Call it what you want. These efforts diminish liberty, and they build the structure for engineering society and the economy. They upend the idea that the people, not the state, are the ultimate sovereign. It is another giant step, along with Obamacare and the Common Core Standards, toward transforming government into a human resources manager along the lines of education reformer Marc Tucker’s 1992 proposal to Hillary Clinton.

In contrast to what private corporations face, why is there no public outrage on this? The answer, perhaps, is that the executive branch is so massive, and operates so secretly, that it is out of control. There is no effective check on its power. Maybe if people begin to realize what is happening, they will reassert their right to be treated as free-born citizens, not as lab rats in the grand government experiment.

Originally posted at American Principles Project