Dossiers

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Dossiers

Beverly Eakman – 2010-03-27

BIG BROTHER’S EYE ON YOU DEPT.

Have you ever wonder how those junk mail solicitors got your address or why they might think you are interested in some political party, cause, religious sect or a certain type of car or insurance? Well, Beverly Eakman, a former Justice Department wordsmith, has the answer. Read her piece here and understand how far Big Brother has been able to intrude into your private life and thoughts. Perhaps we shouldn’t have filled out all those questionnaires in school.

Jim

Dossiers “R” U.S.

by Beverly Eakman

Sometimes one doesn’t know whether to laugh out loud or crawl helplessly into the fetal position.

On Tuesday, March 23, 2010, a type of article typically known in journalistic circles as a “fluff piece” was published in the Washington Post by staff writer Justin Moyer, entitled “ University surveys high school seniors, then tracks them for decades.” In his first-person narrative, he described how, in his not-terribly-distant younger days, he had been given a survey as a high school senior that “looked like the SAT [Scholastic Achievement Test],” as it was printed on the same type of paper such official questionnaires and tests are printed on. He didn’t think too much about it and was told “[p]articipation was voluntary” and that “[a]nswers…would remain anonymous.”

What he found were questions about drugs (“Had I used tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines? How often?”), some sex-related queries (“Had I had it? Oral sex? Intercourse? How often?”), and questions on driving (“Did I drive? From where? To where? How often?”).

Mr. Moyer says he “answered them all. My willingness to record intimate details about my love life and car use says less about my fear of authority than my sheer innocence. I was 16, or maybe 17. There wasn’t much to hide.”

Then, there was that all-important “but” in hindsight: “But there was no taking it back,” Mr. Moyer wrote. “Apparently I’d signed up for a long-term project: No matter where I went or what I did, follow-up surveys dogged me like broken-down cars and poor career choices. After graduation in 1994, I moved to Connecticut. I moved to Cape Cod. I moved to Washington. I moved around Washington. But, about once a year, I’d open the mail and see that same wan blue ink on that same heavy paper: another survey, embossed with a clip-art logo (silhouettes holding hands across a wan blue America) and headlined ‘Monitoring the Future: A Continuing Study of American Youth.’ Return address: the University of Michigan.”

What Mr. Moyer was writing about is known in education and political circles as a “longitudinal study.” This author has long described how the nation’s elementary and secondary schools have been tracking such information over time for decades.

Everyone knows that technology is morphing at an incredible pace. Over the past 15 years, in particular, computer experts have been linking various tidbits of information divulged by the clueless and innocent — from the seemingly benign, to the political, to the personal — and submitted these to analysts (typically individuals with dual advanced degrees in behavioral science and statistics).

Where the information goes from there is entirely up to the entities paying for it. The primary point is that all of it — personal, political, or benign — is valuable to somebody and therefore marketable. The secondary point is that it is impossible to prove that there is no backup copy somewhere — i.e., that such information is purged from a computer system.

So while you may not think it particularly important where you spent your summer vacation, or what magazines and newspapers you subscribe to, or which shops you frequent, or your choice of candidates and issues to support, or what your tastes in entertainment are, all these and much more provide data points that can be linked by statisticians. Get a behavioral analyst into the mix, and he or she can fathom commonalities which are evaluated to categorize. Trends (accurate or not) may be discerned, predictions made and conclusions drawn.

And that’s the “rub.”

Given modern computer systems, which got their start as marketing analyses, predictive calculations can be attached either to your persona or to some group with which you affiliate that will result in “marketing” of a kind you never imagined — from politics to pharmaceuticals to investment services to national security “risks.”

Post staff writer Justin Moyer, like most of us, had no idea that years from now the responses he put down as a boy could come back to haunt.

Suppose he decided at some point in his life to run for public office, to seek an advanced degree in a field of position or leadership, or to change careers that somehow touched on the hot-button questions he answered. There is nothing to stop his responses from being accessible, again at the hands of a behavioral analyst, with potentially negative results; nothing to stop them from landing on the desktop of, say, a college admission officer, a Senate subcommittee, the head of a political activist organization, or even an agent of Homeland Security or the FBI. Just how much weight any of these might give the report depends entirely upon the political winds of the moment and upon the particular bias of the individual who sees it.

Which is exactly what makes this sort of predictive capability dangerous. Obviously Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin would have salivated at the potential involved, but so does every pollster, political operative/consultant and partisan fundraising organization in America today. Why do you think you receive the kinds of political solicitations in the mail that you do? Do you imagine everyone receives the same ones, perhaps with only the recipient’s name deftly inserted? Or that every political think tank is honestly seeking your views on a variety of contentious issues?

Hardly. Trust me, the “conservative” Heritage Foundation will not mail questionnaires to individuals who subscribe to Mother Jones magazine.

Granted, sometimes marketing agencies and pollsters get it wrong. Some individuals wish to be apprised of all viewpoints, and they subscribe to a wide variety of print and online publications, as well they should. How is one to ascertain, much less consider, all the sides of a topic unless they do so? And many individuals who, based on marketing profiles that boast classical music tastes and a penchant for Buicks, occasionally find ads for pickup trucks and hip-hop music either in their mailboxes or online.

But such mistakes are quickly becoming passé.

The creepy aspect of long-term statistical-behavioral analysis lay in the temptation for dossier-building. Nothing provides a better observation post into that world than the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an agency of the now-enormous U.S. Department of Education (whose organizational chart, in typeface large enough to be readable, takes up about 8 x 10 feet in floor space). The sheer scope of the information NCES collects via its well-funded federal and state bureaus and offices is breathtaking.

What is renowned (or vilified) today as “data-mining,” has state-based identifying mechanisms linked to federal identifiers, usually social security numbers. These are key to information collection and management. Psycho-behavioral assessments comb this computerized data for controversial opinions, unconventional attitudes, level of parent influence and general quirkiness, above and beyond issues involving what you own and how much money you have. The extent of such activity is revealed in documents such as “ Data-Mining Journals and Books: Using the Science of Networks to Uncover the Structure of the Educational Research Community,” which is part of a much larger tome emanating from Teachers College, Columbia University (“Data-Mining Journals and Books: Using the Science of Networks to Uncover the Structure of the Educational Research Community, Research News and Comments, American Educational Research Association from April 2005, pp. 25-33), as well as from “ The IEEE Seventh International Conference on Data Mining” in 2007.

Today, even toddlers are assessed for such things as individualistic tendencies in state-sponsored early-childhood programs. When (and, more to the point, if) you manage to get your hands on the professional interpretive literature to these assessments, you soon learn that being a “free-thinker” is not necessarily a plus. Teamwork, flexibility and amenability long since have replaced “principle” as virtues in the workplace — or, for that matter, in school and politics. If a child even appears to demonstrate inflexibility or dogmatism, these run counter to educational psychiatrists’ visions of mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation funded a $1.2 million study in 2003 which was said to determine that adherents to traditional moral principles and limited government are sick. NIMH-NSF researchers from the Universities of Maryland, California at Berkeley, and Stanford attributed the notions to “dogmatic” and “rigid” thinking in a paper entitled “ POLITICAL CONSERVATISM AS MOTIVATED SOCIAL COGNITION” (Jost, J. T., J. Glaser, et al. (2003); Psychological Bulletin 129(3): 339-375). That is why “firm religious belief” now has a bad rap and ranks high as a “marker” for poor mental health.

Follow-up research at NCES’ website National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) revealed how identification numbers are assigned to children — ostensibly by the state, but under the auspices of a federal mandate, leaving the states as “fall guys.” Apparently, each state is supposed to craft its “own” ID procedures using federal guidelines, then transmit all the gathered data to the federal government, where private information is cross-matched with other information already in hand from non-school sources. Clueless parents can spend years getting the runaround on that one.

When this columnist entered the State of Nebraska at random, it was discovered that its “Uniq-ID System” student numbers were linked to the youngsters’ federal Social Security numbers, according to a table. Another document explained what was described, step-by-step, as a “drill down” method for locating sensitive information about a student or his family. For example, educrats, who are not even supposed to mention religion or put up red-and-green paper at Christmastime, could select from 30 numerical codes such religious particulars such as “Nazarene,” “Calvinist” and “Pentacostal” (see:  Student Data Handbook for Elementary, Secondary, and Early Childhood Education: 2001 Update ). Most regular classroom teachers would be hard put even to define the differences in these denominations.

All of which begs the question: Where is our government getting this stuff?

From questionnaires — not directly of course, but via what-would-you-do-if and how-do-you-feel-when queries that are staples of psychological surveying techniques, often inserted surreptitiously into bona fide academic tests and even health surveys, not to mention the “anonymous” and “voluntary” questionnaire. Responses are then cross-matched with other information the child has provided at one time or another — family magazine subscriptions, favorite TV shows, disciplinary measures, and so on.

Behavioral analysts (which can include school district psychiatrists) also appear to be looking for anything that might be interpreted as a “pervasive mood,” an “inappropriate behavior” or an “emotional disturbance,” especially as efforts escalate to identify the budding domestic terrorist. Data also is collected from mothers’ records at the doctor’s office, beginning in their pregnancies.

As for any perceived “right to privacy”: well, fuggedaboudit. Ralph Tyler, the famous behavioral testing pioneer (deceased 1994) who once headed the Educational Testing Service, served as Commissioner of Education when it was under the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and was tapped by the Carnegie Corporation (ETS was a spinoff) to chair the committee that would develop the useless (but invasive) National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and his esteemed colleague, Richard Wolf, put it this way: The “need for deception” in testing sometimes outweighs privacy considerations because there “are occasions in which the test constructor [finds it necessary] to outwit the subject so that he cannot guess what information he is revealing.” This from Crucial issues in testing,, co-edited by Ralph Tyler and Richard Wolf of Teachers College, Columbia University (p. 128). Tyler and Wolf essentially conceded back in 1969 that their then-new mission would amount to today’s “psychological profiling.”

Another colleague, Walcott Beatty, admonished around the same time that the effort to capture “noncognitive” details on students’ lives must “avoid the appearance of [being] a national initiative.” It was, of course, every bit a federal initiative — one that is now pervasive, not only in schools, but a staple of doctor’s offices, the criminal justice system, Child Protective Service agencies and linked anytime to the workplace and other government agencies, like Homeland Security, on demand.

Today, issues like waterboarding, indefinite detainment of suspects without a lawyer, and searches without probable cause are receiving the lion’s share of public attention when it comes to expressions of conscience and privacy. While all these are legitimate concerns, far more attention should be paid to the prospect — now upon us — of government getting to a point where it can profile and predict personal and public opinion with a perceived degree of accuracy.

Why? Because on that basis, such a government can also take kids away from parents, forcibly drug citizens who balk at government edicts, commit refuseniks to institutions, create eugenics programs in which those outside the mainstream of thought are discouraged from procreating or adopting children (better think Health Care bill here) and, in effect, enforce any political agenda it pleases.

Beverly K. Eakman is a former speechwriter for the Voice of America (with a top-secret clearance under the U.S. Information Agency) as well as for the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger when he chaired the Commission of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. She served as a writer for the U.S. Dept. of Justice before retiring from the federal government, since winning numerous awards and becoming a sought-after speaker and lecturer. She is the author of three best-selling books on education policy, mental-health issues and data-trafficking as well as a free-lance columnist with dozens of feature articles in hard-cover and online publications to her credit. She began her career as a teacher, where she first got wind, in the 1960’s and 70’s, of what was about to happen to classrooms nationwide. Her writings citing that period are considered historically important today and has earned her nationwide recognition. Her latest book is Walking Targets: How Our Psychologized Classrooms Are Creating a Nation of Sitting Ducks. She can be reached through her web site: B. K. Eakman.

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