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Social Security numbers of military honor winners posted online

September 28, 2012|By David Zucchino
  • Social Security numbers of Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross winners were accidentally posted online by a Pentagon contractor.
Social Security numbers of Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross… (David B. Gleason / Wikimedia…)

The Social Security numbers of Army recipients of the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross were inadvertently posted online by a Pentagon contractor and were available to the public until they were discovered by a Vietnam veteran who researches military medal awards.

The Social Security numbers of 31 winners of the military’s top two awards for valor in combat were posted by a contractor conducting medals research for the Pentagon. The information was removed Friday after the Pentagon learned of the breach through the efforts of Doug Sterner of Alexandria, Va., a Bronze Star winner who has spent 14 years researching medals.

The 31 Social Security numbers were posted on a link that contains details of the 518 recipients awarded the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star since Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was stunned — I’m very upset this information got out there,” said Sterner, 62.

Sterner said Google searches of several medal winners’ names led him to the link, where the Social Security numbers were included along with names, ranks, units and brief narratives of battlefield heroics in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Erik Muendel, chief executive officer of Brightline Interactive, an Alexandria, Va., company that has compiled information on medal recipients for the Pentagon, said he didn’t know how the Social Security numbers ended up online. He said the company was supposed to receive only unclassified information.

“We are investigating exactly how it occurred,” Muendel said in a telephone interview Friday. He added, “We’re getting a lot of heat over this.”

He declined further comment.

A Pentagon spokesman, Maj. S. Justin Platt, said some Social Security numbers were included when Brightline Interactive posted a link to an html-coded file used to create content for an interactive “Gallery of Heroes” kiosk at the October 2011 conference of the Assn. of the United States Army, a nonprofit educational association.

Platt said Pentagon officials learned of the breach and contacted Brightline, which removed the link.

“We take this seriously and we took action immediately,” Platt wrote in an email.

Sterner said the Social Security numbers appeared to have been available for some time. He said soldiers whose Social Security numbers were published ranged in rank from colonel to private. No Social Security numbers were published for Silver Star winners.

Platt said the data were available for less than a year. He said he did not know how much Brightline was paid for the contract, which is no longer active. He said he did not know how or why the Social Security numbers were provided to the contractor.

In 2008, Sterner sold his database of valor medal recipients to the Military Times, which publishes a website, Hall of Valor, and pays him a monthly stipend for his research. Sterner said he notified the newspaper of the data breach; a sister publication, Army Times, contacted the Pentagon. In an online story Friday, the paper said it withheld its story on the breach until the data was removed from public view.

Army Times quoted a Medal of Honor winner, former Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta, as saying of the breach: “That super sucks. It’s like an attack on America. ... I wish it wouldn’t have happened.” Giunta was honored for saving the lives of three fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in 2007.

The Pentagon has supplied Brightline with names, photos and award citations for the medal winners.

Sterner has criticized the Pentagon for failing to provide a centralized, comprehensive listing of winners of major valor awards. In July, the Pentagon began publishing a website, valor.defense.gov, that lists the names, ranks and wars of Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star recipients since Sept. 11.

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Brightline’s data were not related to the Pentagon’s efforts in compiling information for its website.

One reason cited by the Pentagon for the absence of a comprehensive medals database is that it would require using Social Security numbers and other personal information to verify facts about recipients.

Sterner said there is no need to research or reveal personal information in order to verify medal recipients. He said his website — which includes narratives of heroics, photographs, unit histories and newspaper accounts — contains no Social Security numbers or other personal details. He said he verifies medal award recipients through military archives and records.

“Their claim is bogus,” Sterner said.

Sterner described the data in the Web link containing the Social Security numbers as “the most accurate piece of work I’ve seen in some time’’ on military medals.

“I felt like I had found gold,” he said. “But there were a few jewels that shouldn’t have been inside that treasure chest.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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