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Students Publish Breaking News on Terrorism, Data Security

A current and a former graduate student of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School made national news Friday, Nov. 10, with the publication of a Washington Post story revealing that Social Security Administration (SSA) data has played a major role in federal terrorism probes since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

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November 14, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A current and a former graduate student of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School made national news Friday, Nov. 10, with the publication of a Washington Post story revealing that Social Security Administration (SSA) data has played a major role in federal terrorism probes since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The story follows on the heels of other breaking news stories on data mining and data security by Medill journalism students.

Medill student Carlos Roig and Medill graduate Christopher Kriva reported that the SSA sent the names of 456 people classified as terrorist-related to prosecutors after Sept. 11 through 2005. The two discovered that 91 percent of those people were prosecuted, although few were publicly linked to terrorism. Most, they reported, were Latino immigrants working at airports allegedly involved in document fraud.

Their investigation -- part of a project supported by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education called News 21 -- involved months of sifting through social security data. The students also found that only the Justice and Homeland Security departments referred more “terrorism-related” cases for prosecution than the Social Security Administration.

In September, the Associated Press published a News 21 story by Medill graduate student Laura McGann who discovered the existence of “Project Strike Back.” In that previously unreported project, the FBI gave Education Department staffers names to check against the department's student aid database for possible terrorist connections.

In another News 21 investigation that garnered national print and broadcast coverage, Medill student Laura Spadanuta uncovered the use of biometric computers by Walt Disney World theme parks in Orlando, Fla. Privacy advocates suggest that Disney had failed to properly alert visitors about the use of these computers, the kinds of information they collected and the reasons they collected it.

Roig, who co-wrote last week's Washington Post story on the use of social security data, thanked the Carnegie Corporation of New York and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for giving him and other Medill students “the opportunity to step away from our regular course of study to focus ion an in-depth, investigative project of our own design.”

In addition to Medill students at Northwestern, News 21 involves students at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California-Berkeley and University of Southern California.