Washington — Some lending companies with access to a national database that contains confidential information on 60 million student borrowers have repeatedly searched it in ways that violate federal rules, raising alarms about data mining and abuse of privacy, government and university officials said.
The improper searching has grown so pervasive that officials said the Education Department is considering a temporary shutdown of the government-run database to review access policies and tighten security. Some worry that businesses are trolling for marketing data they can use to bombard students with mass mailings or other solicitations.
Students' Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and sensitive financial information such as loan balances are in the database, which is covered by federal privacy laws. "We are just in shock that student data could be compromised like this," said Nancy Hoover, director of financial aid at Denison University in Ohio.
Education Department spokeswoman Katherine McLane said the agency has spent more than $650,000 since 2003 to safeguard the database. The department has blocked thousands of users that it deemed unqualified for access after security reviews, McLane said, and it has blocked 246 users from the student loan industry for inappropriately accessing the data.
In general, the department allows lenders to search records in the database only if they have a student's permission or a financial relationship with the student.
The department has been "vigilant in its monitoring for unauthorized uses" of the database, McLane said.
Concerns about possible abuses of the database are emerging as the student loan industry is under investigation by congressional Democrats and the New York attorney general. Critics say the $85 billion-a-year industry has cozied up to government and university officials who are in the position to help lenders.