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Published in Print: December 8, 2004, as Homeland Security Criticized for Family-Data Guidance

Homeland Security Criticized for Family-Data Guidance

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A federal campaign designed to help schoolchildren and their families make effective communication plans for the event of a terrorist attack has drawn sharp criticism for making students potential targets for identity theft.

The Department of Homeland Security’s “Ready America” campaign, launched this fall, issued an undisclosed number of information kits to schools nationwide with a form encouraging students to carry personal information—such as Social Security numbers for themselves and their parents, dates of birth, and addresses—in their backpacks.

Critics say that the effort is misconceived. They say that many children and adolescents do not keep good track of their belongings, and that backpacks are often lost at shopping malls or left unattended in vulnerable places such as public buses and community playgrounds.

“It’s stunning really that the Department of Homeland Security would ask children to carry around such identification,” said Barry Steinhardt, the director of the Technology and Liberty Project, an initiative of the New York City-based American Civil Liberties Union that was launched in 2002 to protect individual liberties in a time of increasing concerns about terrorism. “There’s no other way to say it—it’s irresponsible.”

But Katy Mynster, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department, said that the form was simply intended as a guide to help families establish plans for communicating in a crisis.

“We’re providing a resource for families,” she said, noting that the items listed on the form are only suggestions and that what ultimately appears is always up to the parent.

However, she said, the department has since removed statements from its literature that encouraged middle and high school students to carry the information in their backpacks.

But critics like Mr. Steinhardt say that “overbroad guidance” is becoming a pattern with the Homeland Security Department, which was formed by combining a host of federal agencies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He suggested that federal officials didn’t think carefully enough when they issued the forms.

“It’s just a level of sloppiness that should not exist,” Mr. Steinhardt said. “This is an agency that hasn’t managed to check the cargo coming into our ports or how to protect our nuclear power plants. Why [are they] wasting money writing to schools suggesting that kids carry around their parents’ Social Security numbers in their backpacks? It makes no sense.”

Ms. Mynster countered that the forms contain basic information family members should know during a crisis.

But Mr. Steinhardt said that doctors and police never request Social Security information during an emergency.

‘Our First Defense’

The potential problems with the federal department’s guide came to light in October, when the daughter of a fraud investigator working for Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Lynch brought the form home from her middle school. The girl began filling it out and asked her mother, the investigator, for the mother’s Social Security number.

But the form immediately sent off red flags for the mother, who alerted Mr. Lynch, said Michael Healey, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.

Mr. Healey estimates that the kits were distributed at more than 100 public middle and high schools in the state.

On Oct. 14, the state attorney general wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and the state office of homeland security. He also sent letters to school administrators statewide, warning of the threat of identity theft.

“Our first defense in combating the costly crime of identity theft is teaching consumers to safeguard their personal information,” Mr. Lynch wrote in the letters.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that nearly 10 million people were victims of identity theft in 2003, costing financial institutions and businesses nearly $48 billion.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ridge, whose department has worked with schools on other safety issues, announced last week that he plans to step down in February from his post as the first secretary of homeland security.

Vol. 24, Issue 15, Page 26

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