The Pentagon has been using a private marketing firm to mine high school records
for data on younger recruits, a result of the No Child Left Behind law, as military
officials struggle to fill the dwindling lower ranks in the armed forces.
As part of this behind-the-scenes campaign to attract young people, private
marketing companies are also trying to create a brand that lures the youth market
The goal is simple, according to the Army's School Recruiting Program handbook--"the
maximum number of quality enlistments." The handbook spells out marketing
techniques "to create positive awareness and interest in Army programs
among students, parents, educators and the community."
Harder time meeting goals
Yet as casualties mount with American forces waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan,
recruiters are having a harder time meeting goals. This month the Army's chief
of staff told Congress that the Army was at "serious risk" of not
meeting its goal of 80,000 recruits for the fiscal year ending in September.
But the recruiting efforts involving a private company has raised concerns
among privacy experts, educators and parents.
Myron Perlman and Ann Krantz from the Rogers Park neighborhood say they're
opposed to the marketing tactics and are worried about privacy issues for their
two children who attend Von Steuben and Lane Tech High Schools.
"There are already so many problems with marketing that a dog can get
a credit card," Perlman said. "It's a problem when a private company
has access to that kind of information especially for teenagers. The federal
government shouldn't be giving it out to anyone."
The head of the National PTA, Anna Weselak from Lombard, said parents are concerned
"about what's being released and what's happening to students' names. Is
it going to the Department of Defense or to other places? Who is using it?"
BeNOW Inc., a Massachusetts direct-marketing company, for two years has been
compiling, processing and distributing names throughout the Defense Department,
said Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman. The company gathers
names, addresses, phone numbers, racial background status and Social Security
"They are centralizing the process," Krenke said. "We're saving
the taxpayer money. Instead of having four or five agencies doing it, one [contractor]
is doing it."
Meanwhile, the military publication Inside the Pentagon reported this month
that the Army's junior enlisted ranks have declined since Sept. 11.
The three lowest, and youngest, ranks--recruits, privates and privates first
class--dropped from 31,220 members in 2001 to 19,629 at the outset of fiscal
year 2004, according to Defense Department data obtained by Inside the Pentagon.
Army officials admit the need for younger recruits is crucial.
Krenke said the marketing firm's involvement in the recruiting effort only
came to light in recent weeks when responsibility for the program was transferred
from the Defense Manpower Data Center to the Defense Human Resources Activity
agency. Switching from one agency to another required a public comment period,
which publicized the issue.
BeNOW Inc. referred all calls about the program to Krenke, who said the company
analyzes the data gleaned from high schools and distributes it to the Army,
Air Force, Navy and Marines. The students' names are attached to mass mailing
lists and are given to recruiters looking for candidates, she said.
The data has been accessible since No Child Left Behind--which places federal
benchmarks on student achievement--was enacted in 2002, allowing the military
access to student directory information.
Possible misuse feared
Still, privacy advocates fear the possible misuse of Social Security numbers
by a private company and the Pentagon.
"In some contexts, collection of the Social Security number is necessary,"
said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel with Washington, D.C.-based Electronic
Privacy Information Center. He noted a bank's ability to use the number for
tax-reporting purposes, but added that for recruitment "it's for matching
and it's not needed to do that. There are other methods you can use. The Department
of Defense has overlooked this."
He says the main problem of misused Social Security numbers comes from employees
who lift the numbers from the workplace and then use them to steal identities,
abuse credit cards or other information.
"Misuse usually is a result of insiders who have access to the numbers
and who aren't adequately supervised," Hoofnagle said. "That could
be a problem in the military but it's a bigger problem in the private sector."
Krenke defends the project, saying Social Security numbers are not distributed.
"This is just a more efficient way of working, and it's information we
need to reach these people."
Young people can "opt out" of being solicited by the military.
No Child Left Behind contains a clause allowing parents or students 18 and
older to prevent schools from giving out information. But critics say schools
do not always inform parents or students about the choice of opting out.
The American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico filed suit against the Albuquerque
Public School District recently, charging it did not adequately inform parents
of the opt-out clause.
And Hoofnagle says even though a parent can opt out of having a child solicited
for military duty, the child can't opt out of being in on the database.
Barbara and Eric Pement of Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood were surprised
to learn that vital information for their three children was still part of the
military's list even though they signed opt-out forms.
"That's private information and I don't think it should be distributed,"
said Barbara Pement, a member of Von Steuben High School's Local School Council.
"I think most parents don't realize that's happening. You sign a form thinking
that information won't be released."
The Pentagon is aware that parents can make or break a potential recruit's
decision to enlist, so it's stepping up advertising campaigns aimed at gaining
One TV ad features parents talking about their own children enlisting.
College students are targeted in a different way.
In their case, the Pentagon uses the same techniques that businesses employ
to sell cars, cell phones or potato chips. They use gimmicks and highlight the
adventure of serving the country.