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Medal recipients’ Social Security numbers accidentally posted online

By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times –

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. “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 Association of the United States Army, a nonprofit educational group.

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 e-mail.

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.

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