February 27, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Landess: Data warehouses threaten S.C. citizens’ privacy rights


The state of South Carolina has a lot of information about you and your family – including your children. That much you know, but new laws on the books – and in the works – push data collection to a level that not only threatens privacy rights but also opens the door for dangerous regulations based on personal information.

The Legislature has, in stages, created a sort of “information central,” passing laws that create two data warehouses to pull in information from agencies for health care and social services, education and workforce.

The goals of this system are nebulous, the privacy protections flimsy, and the possibilities literally limitless as to what could be collected and how it could be used by government officials and politicians.

It’s bad enough that so much sensitive data will be in one place. Our state has a poor track record of protecting personal information. But the greatest cause for alarm are the underlying motives for creating this system, and the broad range of government bureaucrats and politicians who would have access to your data.

A trilogy of legislative mandates – two hidden in budget provisos and one in a bill passed last year – establish “data warehouses” to house individual data in the health care system and to track students through school … and beyond.

The Health and Human Services Data Warehouse was created under a 2016 proviso (hidden in the budget) that allows collection of data from multiple state agencies as well as any other entity deemed necessary. [emphasis mine]

Consider what “other entities” are health care services tied in some way to government. Most hospitals and even physician practices are affiliated with a medical university or a county. Add in existing prescription drug databases – which are already in place — and there’s not much that would be excluded.

But the data warehouse project isn’t limited to health and social services data. Legislators have passed bills creating the Coordinating Council for Workforce Development (CCWD) in 2016, and creating a second database in 2017.

This year, hidden in the state budget, is a proviso that outlines the details for the “South Carolina Industry, Workforce and Education Data Warehouse, which would be overseen by a newly created panel under the CCWD, called the Workforce and Education Data Oversight Committee (WEDOC). This new database has the sinister purpose of tracking students through school … and beyond.

It’s not just graduating seniors the nine-member WEDOC – which includes the heads of the state departments of commerce, employment and education, or their designees – will track. It also will follow “working-age adults….who possess a postsecondary degree or industry credential,” and “high school graduates gainfully employed in the State within five and ten years of graduating from high school …”

The purpose of WEDOC is defined throughout the proviso in terms such as:

  • “the coordination and continuity of the workforce delivery system
  • to “prepare the state’s emerging and current workforce to meet the needs of the state’s economy
  • to coordinate the “efficient delivery of education and workforce services to meet the demands of industry” [emphasis mine]

There is no other way to interpret that language, except as intending to treat the education system as the “workforce delivery system, and to track students – and the rest of us – to determine if we are serving the demands of industry.

The package of bills and provisos comes together as one amassing of information. The databases would be managed by the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office (RFA), which is controlled by a board of three people appointed by the governor, the Ways and Means chairman and the Senate Finance chairman.

To be clear, the two databases are accessible by “the South Carolina General Assembly and their staffs, state agencies and researchers.” [emphasis mine]

This information creates dangerous possibilities regardless of the merits of the intent. It’s not a stretch in this climate to foresee regulations banning people from carrying firearms if they take certain medicines or have illnesses. The State Law Enforcement Division keeps a database of concealed weapons permit holders, and the law allows any entity to be brought into the database.

It isn’t a leap to worry about what choices were made in schools based on data queries into which students are a fit for certain corporations’ job openings. It’s possible under these provisos that high school students could be grouped based on behavioral patterns, test scores, health information – or even if they’ve participated in a state-sponsored substance abuse program.

Whether or not such scenarios are likely isn’t the point – that they are possible at all is unacceptable.

It is feasible that the two databases could be stopped. They are both provisos in the budget that’s in conference committee. It’s too late to remove them, but a veto by the governor – sustained by the Legislature – would remove authority to operate.

Citizens should not trust sensitive information to legislators and their staffs, bureaucrats or undefined “researchers.” There truly is no limit to what’s possible, and privacy caveats are flimsy and don’t limit access by multiple public officials.

These databases are wrong even for the purpose they were ostensibly created. But it’s the potential for mischief and harm that should not be possible at all.

Ashley Landess is president of the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve‘s parent organization.

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