Garner: Opinion

State mining more data

Several years ago, researchers conducted a study examining the effects of divorce on children.

The researchers looked at children when they were ages 7-11, interviewed their parents and teachers about any behavioral issues and had them take achievement tests in reading and math.

Four years later, the same children were examined in the same manner, and those whose parents had gone through divorce were compared with those who had not.

Of course, the researchers needed the parents’ permission and cooperation to conduct the study.

Imagine if they didn’t.

Imagine if all that information – who was divorced, who was not, which children belonged to which parents, how those children performed on school tests, whether those children had runs-in with law enforcement – was in a single computer database just waiting for the information to be plucked by researchers.

Imagine how much more effective the study might be, with researchers able to grab more information from more children.

Sounds great, right?

Oh, privacy? Permission to track your every move?

That’s only a minor concern, isn’t it?

In fact, it appears to be just that among policymakers at the state and national levels.

As the Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation recently reported, a national database to collect information on school students around the country has been under development for more than a year.

Funded by private foundations, it is being touted as a means of developing personal education plans for students. It involves the collection of millions of student records, including those involving economic status, grades, test scores and disciplinary histories.

The collection of this information comes as changes have been made to federal student-privacy laws that allow more third-party access to records.

On the state level, North Carolina legislators last year joined the growing trend of states starting what are called longitudinal databases. The databases essentially allow state governments to track you and your interactions with state government across state agencies.

So, North Carolinians could be tracked and analyzed from school into college and then into the workforce, with school records, unemployment data, tax information and welfare-recipient information all in the data mix.

State lawmakers passed this law with nary a peep of opposition.

This year, legislation to create a new “Government Business Intelligence Competency Center,” to oversee data collection, integration and sharing, is before the General Assembly.

As I wrote last year when the earlier law passed, the use of data mining is increasing every day. Google and others are tracking your Internet searches to pitch ads to you. Every time you swipe that grocery store discount card, your purchases are being compiled into a database.

You have the choice to do a Google search, to post on Facebook, to use that discount card.

Government’s embrace of data mining, without the permission of citizens, is a much scarier proposition.

The scariest part is that no one is scared.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.