A former employee of the U.S. Department of Education has pleaded guilty to illegally accessing confidential loan files of several hundred college students on an agency database, the U.S. Department of Justice announced.
Charlotte M. Robinson, 46, of Dolton, Illinois, pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to one count of unauthorized computer access. Robinson, who faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a US$100,000 fine, is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 22.
Robinson worked as an employee in the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Division of the Department of Education, where her responsibilities included reviewing and processing student loan complaints within the FSA Office of the Ombudsman, the DOJ said in a press release. Between April 2006 and May 2009, Robinson logged into the agency's National Student Loan Database System (NSLDS) and repeatedly viewed the confidential college loan records of several hundred people, including musicians, actors, family members and friends, the DOJ said.
NSLDS includes borrowers' names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, types of loans, loan balances and other information. Confidential records maintained in NSLDS are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, and access by Department of Education employees is strictly limited to official government duties, the DOJ said.
Robinson was aware that the records were confidential, according to her plea agreement. Her sole purpose for viewing the records was "idle curiosity," the DOJ said.
NSLDS includes a warning when Department of Education workers access the database. "This is a Government system, to be used by authorized personnel only," the warning says. "If you use this computer system, you should understand that all activities may be monitored and recorded by automated processes and/or by Government personnel."
Since 2008, the DOJ has also prosecuted 10 employees or contractors at the U.S. Department of State for accessing confidential passport files through an agency database. In early 2008, the State Department reported that employees there had accessed the passport files of three presidential candidates, including then-Senator Barack Obama.
An internal investigation found that State Department employees had viewed the passport files of hundreds of people.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.