Quick Thoughts on Privacy — from National Security to Predatory Lending


My colleagues at the New America Foundation’s HigherEdWatch — the same people who broke a whopper of a story in April on student loan officers receiving kickbacks from banks, which generated a national media firestorm, Congressional inquiries and legal settlements with many state attorney generals — have broken some more news on predatory student lending.

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This latest scoop reveals that student loan giant Sallie Mae has joined the ranks of aggressive student loan companies attempting to manipulate state freedom of information laws to procure students’ personal data. They write:

Late last month, student loan giant Sallie Mae filed a New York Freedom of Information Law request asking community colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system to provide the company with the names, telephone numbers, and home mailing and e-mail addresses of “all admitted and enrolled students for academic year 2007-2008.” The request, which came from the company’s Direct Marketing division, also asked the schools to identify the age, graduating class, and major of each student listed.
Such requests from direct-to-consumer private student loan companies are raising alarms among college financial aid administrators, who worry that the companies are trying to lure their students to take on unnecessarily high levels of debt. They have also caught the attention of the Education Department. …
Some lenders have used open record requests to try to get colleges to provide them with lists of students who are in financial distress. …
Sallie Mae appears to have carefully crafted its New York Freedom of Information Law request to ensure that the information it was seeking — all of which could be classified as “directory information” — was FERPA proof.
Nevertheless, SUNY officials are expected to reject Sallie Mae’s request, arguing that the New York statute allows state agencies to deny access to lists of names and addresses that have been sought for commercial purposes, as no public purpose is served by such a disclosure.

While it remains the subject of heated debate, I think there’s at least a defensible case to be made that some transgressions of privacy for national security purposes serve a public good. After reading some of Richard Betts‘s new book Enemies of Intelligence (a fascinating examination of the inherent tensions within the intelligence process that I hope to write more on soon), I’ve become increasingly convinced that Americans may have to grapple with some tough, perhaps unsavory choices.
But it seems Sallie Mae and other companies engaged in predatory student lending practices invade students’ privacy without providing a public good in exchange. In fact, trying to use freedom of information laws for their commercial purposes defaces a public good.
–Sameer Lalwani


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