JAG attorney wants to prevent POW identity theft
April 25, 2003
Captured servicemembers for decades have been giving the enemy their name, rank and serial number.
A judge advocate says the practice should be abolished because a captor can now use a prisoner’s serial number — that is, his Social Security number — against him.
“As an attorney, I’m always worried about my privacy,” said Maj. Jefferson D. Reynolds, a reservist assigned to Special Operations Command, Stuttgart, Germany. “As a JAG, my job is to look at potential vulnerabilities of the guys I serve, especially for those in the operational realm [surveillance, etc.].
“We have guys in harm’s way on regular basis. If anybody’s going to be taken POW, it’s going to be guys like that.”
Reynolds cowrote a 23-page academic article criticizing Article V of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct. The article will be published in May in the Boston University International Law Journal.
If a prisoner’s captors are computer savvy, Reynolds said, they can know a prisoner’s address and family members in less than an hour.
Reynolds, a 37-year-old native of Elgin, Ill., is a civilian environmental attorney at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. He served seven years of active duty in the Air Force and is now in his second tour as a reservist in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Reynolds said he hoped his article will spur the Department of Defense to update the code of conduct.
“I’m not doing it to piss anybody off,” Reynolds said. “As an attorney and an officer, these are the things we’re supposed to be doing. For the guys down on the ground and the guys I work with, it’s definitely the right thing to do.”
Others agree with Reynolds.
Captors who obtain a POW’s birthdate and Social Security number can quickly start pretending to be that person, according to Bill Haslinger, an assistant professor in the Economic Crime Investigation Department at Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y.
“You could establish a cell- phone account pretty readily,” Haslinger said. “You could open a bank account and get a loan, then default on the loan.
“It’s incredible how much you can find out about a person on the Internet, sometimes simply just by knowing their name.”
For example, telephone directories can be cross-referenced to find out a POW’s address or even a spouse’s name.
“The information that military personnel were historically authorized to give out can take on a much more dire consequence in today’s warfare,” Haslinger said.
Reynolds cowrote the article with Rick S. Lear, another JAG who is currently attending the University of Virginia.
Katherine Heid, a Boston University student and the law journal’s editor-in-chief, said she was unaware that POWs were required to give their captors their Social Security number.
“[Reynolds’ article] seemed really relevant for us with everything that’s going on in the world right now,” Heid said. “I hope something can be done because it sounds like a serious problem.”
Heid said the May edition will include four professional articles, including the one by Reynolds and two pieces by law students. She said the edition would be printed in mid- to late-May, and that it would be available to Internet readers at a later date.
Reynolds said the Department of Defense abolished the traditional serial number in the late 1960s and replaced it with a servicemember’s Social Security number.
“That replacement in my opinion was a really bad idea because of what you can do with a Social Security number now on the Internet,” Reynolds said.
The Social Security number is printed on DOD ID cards, including the new ones that contain a chip which can enable access to personal information such as medical history.
Chief Master Sgt. Ricky Arnold, manager of the survival, evasion, resistance and escape program at the Pentagon, said the ID card will not compromise a prisoner’s security if it falls into the enemy’s hands.
The chip merely allows for electronic access to computer systems that contain personal data. When the card is reported lost or stolen, or when the cardholder is reported missing or captured, electronic access to that information is turned off, Arnold said.
U.S. Military Code of Conduct
The Code of Conduct for U.S. Armed Forces was first published by President Eisenhower in Executive Order 10631 in 1955. It was later amended by President Carter in 1977. It outlines the basic responsibilities and obligations of all U.S. servicemembers to the United States.
When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.