BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - The Department of Defense will improve privacy protections for a database used by outside groups to confirm a service member’s military status, under a settlement with the Vietnam Veterans of America finalized Thursday.
The VVA sued in 2017 after one of its members was targeted by scammers who accessed details about him through the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act site. The database is meant to help landlords or other businesses with a financial or legal reason verify a service member’s eligibility for military benefits and protections during deployments.
But the lawsuit said scammers instead used the site’s easily accessible information to call retired Air Force Master Sergeant Thomas Barden and, posing as a Microsoft affiliate, win his trust before taking over his computer and demanding ransom to unlock it.
The caller had thanked Barden for his military service and knew the specific dates the western New York veteran had served and in what branch, information Barden thought would be accessible only with government authorization.
“Mr. Barden remains in the dark about who has obtained his private information through the SCRA website,” according to the suit.
The VVA said information about millions of veterans and current servicemen and servicewomen, including the dates they were called up for past or future active duty, was available to anyone who entered a name and birthday into the search engine.
The website receives about 2.3 billion search queries every year, according to DOD data cited in the lawsuit.
“We had a concern about the fact that this information was so easily available that it could have been used by anyone,” said Richard Barney III, a student attorney who represented the plaintiffs through the Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law. “That was the main point of our lawsuit, that this information isn’t being protected at all.”
Without admitting liability, the DOD said it would begin requiring users to register with the site before conducting any searches and clearly define authorized uses of the information. Users also will see warnings against misusing the site, including for marketing or commercial profit, and the site will flag accounts that appear to be trying to improperly access social security numbers.
Quarterly reports to VVA will list the company names of active users, and those whose accounts have been suspended or terminated.
“Veterans are not a product,” said John Rowan, national president of VVA, which brought the suit with VVA New York State Council, VVA Chapter 77 and Barden. “We will not let those who have exploited our defenders go unpunished.”
After realizing he’d been scammed, a shaken Barden broke his hard drive into pieces and threw the pieces into multiple trash cans over several days to ensure it could not be pieced back together, the lawsuit said.
“Monetizing our service members by sharing their personal information for profit while compromising their identities is despicable and damaging to our national defense,” Rowan said in a statement.
The DOD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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