It’s Time to Pay More Attention to Veterans’ Privacy Rights By H. Scott Higgins

Posted Jan 06, 2020

Our country honors the many sacrifices that our military servicemen and women have made to keep our nation safe. But in addition to our appreciation, it’s time to recognize something else they deserve -- a right to keep their personal information and military records safe from abuse.

This important issue has entered the national spotlight as a result of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) recent settlement of a federal lawsuit brought by Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). Under the settlement, the DoD has committed to improving privacy protections for a database used by outside groups to confirm veterans and service members’ military status.

While the settlement will require the DoD to better secure its service member site, the ongoing violation of veterans’ privacy rights should not be ignored. For years, third-party data brokers improperly accessed the DoD’s database without authority and sold the data. The Service Members Civil Relief Act (SCRA) specifically prohibits the use of the database for marketing purposes.

According to VVA, information on millions of current service members and veterans, including the dates they were called up for past or future active duty, was unprotected and available to anyone who entered a name and birthday into the search engine.

Under the settlement, the DoD has committed to limiting access to the military database to only authorized parties, such as creditors who, under SCRA must check to see if a service member is deployed before filing a claim against them. Going forward, there will be penalties, including criminal penalties, for those who violate the proper use of the military data.

Unfortunately, this is not the only example of abuse of our service members and veterans’ privacy; as a group, they are disproportionately targeted by scammers for deceptive and unfair business practices. According to the Federal Trade Commission, veterans are twice as likely to report being victims of identity theft than members of the general population. Because veterans are so vulnerable, we need to be especially vigilant to respect and safeguard their privacy, and that includes not only government but businesses as well.

At Veterans Advantage, PBC, the public benefit company I founded together with my spouse, Lin, we have done just that. Beginning in 2000, we built a protocol for companies to check their customer’s eligibility for a military discount using a secure military ID verification system created with only first-party data. We have successfully performed military and veteran status verification for hundreds of companies for 20 years. I am pleased to report that during that time, we have not experienced a single incident of fraud or dilution -- clear proof that verification can be achieved without accessing federal databases.

The California Consumer Privacy Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2020, will also spark additional scrutiny on how companies gather veterans’ data. The bill grants rights to residents of California, the state with the largest population of veterans, to ask how companies collect and use their data, among other protections.

For companies, and retailers in particular, it will no longer be acceptable to not divulge how information is gathered for military verification. The businesses will have a responsibility and, in fact, a legal obligation to show that proper and legal business practices are being followed. It is expected that many states will follow California’s lead on this issue.

From our early beginnings at Veterans Advantage, when the service of Vietnam War Veterans was still largely ignored, I have been thankful for the patriotic companies that have proudly joined us in our mission to create greater respect, recognition and rewards for those who protect our freedoms and to honor their service.

In working to do so much good, these companies must also remember to respect and protect the privacy of those they are rewarding and be wary of working with those that violate this trust.

H. Scott Higgins, a Vietnam War Veteran, is the Co-CEO and Co-founder of Veterans Advantage, a nationwide benefits program that advocates for new benefits for active duty military, veterans, guard and reserve, and their family members. Mr. Higgins is also a Director of the Medal of Honor Foundation.