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News ::
Colleges giving Probers Data on Foreign Students' Finances
03 Oct 2001
Boston Globe,10/3/01: More than 195 colleges have provided data about their foreign students to the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the three weeks since the terrorist attacks, according to a new survey of 1,060 US colleges that the Globe obtained yesterday. Reposted from Chicago IMC
Colleges giving Probers Data on Foreign Students' Finances

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 10/3/200
phealy (at)

As federal authorities hunt for the money trails left by the Sept. 11 hijackers, they are finding significant and pliant allies among US colleges, which have turned over bank account numbers, credit card data, and other private financial records of foreign students.

More than 195 colleges have provided data about their foreign students to the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the three weeks since the terrorist attacks, according to a new survey of 1,060 US colleges that the Globe obtained yesterday.

The government is eyeing student financial accounts as conduits or possible sources of cash for some of the terrorists, university and federal officials say. These records are normally protected by privacy law, but scores of colleges are providing them for investigators, usually without telling students that the data are being disclosed.

''It's become very clear that the FBI and INS want to know where foreign students' money is coming from,'' said one college official, whose Massachusetts campus has been contacted by US authorities.

''What bank account is it in? Where did it originate from? Who else had access to the money? They want to know all of this as they try to trace the money trail of the terrorists,'' said the official.

At least one of the 19 hijackers was in the United States on a student visa, a document that usually requires the holder to give financial statements to the school to show how tuition, room, and board will be paid.

One INS official in Washington, who asked not to be named, said the agency has two purposes for contacting colleges: Investigating possible ties between students and suspected terrorists, and clamping down broadly on lapsed student visas.

''The main thrust is to look for direct information that may help with the terrorism investigation,'' the INS official said.

With government requests increasingly enmeshing colleges in the US investigation, educators are straining to balance security needs with students' privacy interests, according to interviews and responses to the survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Educators say they also have concerns about ''ethnic profiling'' of their students, since some of the data requests target either all international students, Arab students, or those from the Middle East.

The FBI, INS, and others are chiefly seeking two types of data: Public records, and confidential information protected by privacy laws.

Most schools are eagerly and quickly providing the public data. For example, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education yesterday ordered all state colleges to give the names and last known addresses of their foreign students to the INS and the board's staff.

''There have been flaws in the immigration system at all sides,'' said Stephen Tocco, chairman of the Board of Higher Education. ''We want to do what we can to help.''

As for private student records, such as financial aid forms and attendance data, about 90 of the 195 schools have been asked to provide such data. Under the law, these records cannot be released without a student's permission, except when a ''medical or emergency'' situation arises. The government has invoked the emergency clause in the name of national security, but some colleges are skeptical, saying such exceptions are supposed to apply only when the health of the student is in jeopardy.

''The government seems to acknowledge in this very special circumstance, they're significantly changing the rules on privacy law,'' said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella group of 1,800 US colleges.

The INS, meanwhile, is allowed to seize foreign students' records if it believes the students may have violated their immigration visas.

The ethical quandary for some schools is whether to release the data without telling the students involved, especially when it's not clear the student has committed any wrongdoing. Some schools have also struggled with whether to inform the public that local students may be under investigation.

The vast majority of schools contacted chose to turn over the data without informing students.

Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, for example, has provided subpoenaed data to the FBI and has chosen not to tell the students involved, according to the new survey. The school is refusing, however, to publicly acknowledge the contact with the FBI.

''If we're obligated under the law to breach certain confidentialities - and we don't like doing that - we're going to give out as little information as possible so we can protect people as much as possible,'' a Harvard official said yesterday.

Many colleges, in fact, have been far more cooperative than Harvard. Of the 195 that have provided information, 172 did not wait for a subpoena and 117 did not consult with university lawyers before turning over the information to the government.

The scope of data requests varies widely, and in some cases, the focus on ethnic minorities has troubled some educators. Addresses for all international students at Salem State College were sought by local police, and the University of Alabama and California Polytechnic State University received similar requests. Wisconsin police wanted confidential data on all Arab students at St. Norbert College. Federal authorities sought names of any Middle Eastern students at William Carey College in Mississippi.

Hartle, of the American Council on Education, said ethnicity-specific requests made by local and campus police were especially suspect.

''Releasing that kind of information to city police isn't permitted under any interpretation of the law,'' said Hartle, an expert on privacy law. ''Those police agencies need to find other projects. This is a matter for the FBI and INS.''

Many schools feel that national security issues oblige them to assist the government, he said, even if they feel uncertain about privacy concerns.

''Colleges are anxious to cooperate in any way they can in this tragedy,'' he said.

Patrick Healy can be reached by e-mail at phealy (at)
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