WASHINGTON — Vietnam Veterans of America is suing the Defense Department for potentially exposing personal information of millions of current and former service members through lax oversight of its Servicemembers Civil Relief Act website.

The federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Western District of New York Court on Tuesday morning, demands an overhaul of the site and additional protections for personal information of individuals in the department databases.

“By making this private information freely accessible, the defendants are putting veterans at risk of impostor scams, identity theft, and other frauds,” the lawsuit stated. “Defendants are also depriving veterans their ability to control who learns sensitive details about their military service.”

In recent days, defense officials have announced planned changes to the site, including “updates to the website’s code base” to “better protect servicemember active duty information.”

But the lawsuit alleges the problems are fundamental to the set-up of the site.

“The Defense Department is fueling the problem by leaving veterans’ private information easily accessible on the internet,” said VVA President John Rowan in a statement. “(Defense officials) have refused to properly secure veterans’ information; we are asking a court to order them to do so.”

For now, the SCRA website allows any visitor to search through an individual’s service records by providing their last name and either their birthdate or social security number. No restrictions are put on who can read the results, which VVA officials say makes the resource attractive to scammers and identity thieves.

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Thomas Barden, who is a party in the lawsuit, said online scammers used details from the site to win his trust, convince him to buy fraudulent computer security software and steal other financial records.

“We expect the military to protect our private information, not to leave it unsecured,” Barden said in a statement. “The government should not be giving con artists easy access to information they can use to scam veterans like me.”

The lawsuit accuses defense officials of violating both the federal Privacy Act and the Federal Information Security Modernization Act, along with a host of industry best practices for personal information.

VVA officials are represented in the lawsuit by the Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law. The suit seeks at least $1,000 in damages for Barden along with fixes in the site.

 

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.