Social Security numbers and other key information about more than 2,200 living military veterans showed up by mistake on Ancestry.com, according to a Department of Military Affairs report. As department officials investigate the cause of a filing error that supplied the information to Ancestry.com, the VA announced it had already arranged for affected families to receive a year of free credit monitoring services.
Freedom of Information Act requires disclosure after death
Genealogy enthusiasts use the website to trace family histories, often relying on the site's catalog of public records to bridge gaps in their own personal data. Ancestry.com routinely requests details about deceased military veterans by making requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
Under FOIA rules, government agencies must promptly offer up any unclassified information related to public officials or military veterans. Current rules require the VA to provide Ancestry.com with the name, social security number, date of birth, date of death, military branch assignments, and the dates of entry on active duty and release from active duty for deceased Veterans.
Ancestry.com quickly complied with takedown request
In a statement to reporters, VA spokesperson Jerry Davis confirmed that Ancestry.com received the information from the government agency in March 2011. However, the agency did not learn about the inclusion of information about living veterans until early December. Davis said that Ancestry.com moved quickly to purge its database of records that VA officials flagged as belonging to living veterans.
Officials declined to speculate on the kinds of identity theft attempts the veterans and their families might face after the disclosure of such personal information. Unlike publicized data breaches at banks and government agencies, this release of personal data only reached paid users of Ancestry.com's personal research services. However, someone with access to a veteran's Social Security number and date of birth could submit fraudulent credit card applications or obtain access to financial services at some banks.