The New York Civil Liberties Union brought suit against the Department of Defense in federal court today, charging that the Department is violating American high school students' privacy rights and federal law by maintaining an unauthorized database of personal student information for use in military recruitment efforts.
When Congress passed a law in 1982 authorizing the Department of Defense to create a database of information about American high school students, the lawmakers were intending to assist the DoD in recruiting students for the military. But the 1982 law also set important limits to protect students' privacy. The lawmakers specified that the DoD must collect only basic contact and educational information, must refrain from collecting information about students under 17 years of age, must store the information for no more than three years, and must keep the information private.
But last year the DoD announced that it had created a database that flouted these restrictions. The new recruitment database seeks to index a wide variety of private and personal information about every American high school student, including gender, ethnicity, and social security number. It includes information about 16-year-olds, in defiance of the mandate that it only include students 17 and older. The DoD has also announced that it will keep the information for five years, rather than the three allowed by the statute, and that it will share the information widely with law enforcement and other agencies and individuals, rather than keeping it private.
"We knew that our military was desperate for soldiers and that recruiters had gone to great lengths to pressure students to join the ranks," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. "But we could not have guessed that the Department of Defense would pursue a recruiting tactic that would so completely disregard the boundaries that Congress had laid down to protect student privacy rights."
The plaintiffs in the case are six sixteen- and seventeen-year-old high school students who object to the DoD's inappropriate collection, maintenance, and distribution of their personal and private information.
"Our clients don't wish to join the military, and they don't want their genders, ethnicities, and social security numbers collected and distributed by the private company that the DoD has charged with building and maintaining this database," said Corey Stoughton, NYCLU Staff Attorney and lead counsel on the case. "We hope that this suit will bring the DoD into compliance with the rules that Congress put in place to protect the rights of high school students nationwide."
Hope Reichbach, a senior at Hunter College High School in Manhattan, contacted the NYCLU and became a plaintiff in the lawsuit after trying and failing to have her name removed from the lists and databases that have subjected her to repeated phone calls from military recruiters.
"I opted out to get my name off their lists, but they contacted me anyway," Reichbach said. "I got involved in this lawsuit because I want them to leave me and other students alone."
The NYCLU filed the case, Hanson et al. v. Rumsfeld et al., in the Southern District of New York. Named defendants are Donald Rumsfeld, in his official capacity as United States Secretary of Defense, and other DoD personnel. NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn is co-counsel on the case.
Click here to read the NYCLU's complaint (PDF).