The Defense Department will revamp its Servicemembers Civil Relief Act databases following charges the online information sites exposed millions of troops’ and veterans’ personal information to identity thieves and scammers, officials announced Thursday.
Leaders from Vietnam Veterans of America, which filed a lawsuit against the department to force the changes, called the move an important step in ensuring that military members’ information is monitored and protected.
“Veterans are not a product. We will not let those who have exploited our defenders go unpunished,” VVA national president John Rowan said in a statement. “Monetizing our service members by sharing their personal information for profit while compromising their identities is despicable and damaging to our national defense.”
At issue are online databases the military has been operating since 1985 which allow private businesses to verify troops’ military status for eligibility in Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protections. That law provides financial relief from certain bills and obligations while troops are deployed or mobilized to active duty.
However, VVA officials charge that as the databases evolved into web sites over the years, the personal information of troops and veterans became “easily accessible on the internet to anybody at all, anonymously, for any purpose.” Attorneys argued in federal court in New York that the department should have been more active in safeguarding the information.
Under the terms of the settlement, the department will now require all users of the sites to register before accessing any information and more clearly outline the potential criminal penalties for anyone abusing the information.
Companies seeking to access military status will also be able to do so without entering individuals’ Social Security numbers, in an effort to cut down on sharing of that personal identifier.
Defense officials have also promised to more closely monitor use of the databases to identify patterns of possible misuse or abuse. That includes a quarterly report of all database users and any suspended or terminated accounts.
The Defense Department did not face any fines or monetary damages under the terms of the settlement.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2017, was handled by attorneys at the Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law.
“The government has a duty to veterans and service members to safeguard their privacy and to ensure that it is not leaving sensitive information unsecured,” said Jonathan Manes, supervising attorney at the clinic. “In this case, the government violated that duty.
“It should not have required a lawsuit to address this problem, but we are pleased the government came to the table with VVA to fix it.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.