"I don't think the student-loan database has ever been designed with security and privacy in mind," the former official said Tuesday. "The focus is on ease of use."
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., sent a letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Sunday, urging her to block private lenders from using the system amid reports that lenders have been procuring confidential information about student borrowers without permission.
In response, Spellings wrote to Kennedy on Tuesday, stating that the department has decided to temporarily suspend database access to lenders, pending a review by the department and its inspector general "to determine if there has been unauthorized usage."
The concern among university officials is that lenders are mining the database to obtain private information for marketing products to students -- which is not permitted.
Spellings' letter mentioned that security measures have been bolstered in recent years, following a 2005 IG report. The report, which was an inspection of the database's security plan, recommended that the rules be altered by increasing the length of the passwords to a minimum of eight characters; ensuring that passwords are updated every 90 days; reviewing system logs on a weekly basis; and implementing several other procedures.
After reading the letter, the former official said, "It should not have taken an IG audit or management review to reveal these rather obvious weaknesses."
The "big questions regarding security and privacy were cleverly glossed over" in the letter, the official said. "Saying that data is 'confidential and protected by the Privacy Act of 1974' is not the same thing as stating that the data are in fact protected."
Paul Proctor, a vice president with Gartner Research's security and risk group, said preventing unauthorized use of the data is complicated by the lenders' genuine need to use the data as part of daily operations.
"This is not about malicious criminals. This is eroding privacy rights when businesses target people based on data given freely for legitimate reasons but used for unintended, illegitimate and unapproved purposes," he said. "All [Education] can do is put policies in place that say, 'Don't use this data for unauthorized purposes,' train the users, and then put monitoring controls and sanctions in place."
Liz Gasster, general counsel and acting executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, said, "A lot of the problem can be solved with technology ... but depending on what data the lenders need, it may not all be able to be solved with technology. ... Sometimes it's a management issue as well."