WASHINGTON — A small and little-known Defense Department office has the big task of protecting service members’ and civilian employees’ personal information in the digital world, while also getting accustomed to its new charge of protecting their civil liberties.
The Defense Privacy and Civil Liberties Office is working to reduce official uses of Social Security numbers and to educate the workforce about appropriate uses of social networking and the need for encrypting workplace email, the office’s director, Michael E. Reheuser, said during a recent interview with American Forces Press Service.
“We want to make sure that everything we do across the department, we’re doing the best we can to protect people’s privacy interests, and their civil liberties interests,” he said.
The privacy side of the office began in the 1970s post-Watergate era over concerns about government intrusions. It carried out its charge of giving advice, training and filing official reports for decades, while evolving into the Information Age with its added potential for widespread misuse of personal information online, said Reheuser, a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as DOD’s associate deputy general counsel before heading up the privacy and civil liberties office.
Congress added the civil liberties component in DOD and seven other departments and agencies two years ago at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which focused on the need for better information-sharing among federal agencies to prevent terrorist attacks. As part of its civil liberties work, the office is charged with ensuring that agencies don’t share information that infringes on civil liberties, Reheuser said.
The office, which reports to Michael L. Rhodes, director of administration and management in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, must file quarterly reports to Congress regarding DOD privacy and civil liberties matters. It filed its first report on civil liberties in the last quarter, Reheuser said.
The office focuses primarily on internal issues ï¿½ those of service members and DOD civilians — which range from protecting Social Security numbers and Internet-based information on the privacy side, to ensuring First Amendment protections of religion and free speech on the civil liberties side, Reheuser said.
Examples of complaints referred to the office include that of a service member who drove his car on base bearing a bumper sticker critical of the commander in chief, and those from service members who said their religious-based dietary restrictions were compromised by roommates. The office also may look into external issues, such as possible rights violations of civilian visitors to military properties, but those are rare, Reheuser said.
The office does not adjudicate cases, Reheuser stressed, but rather investigates whether the proper rules and regulations are in place to safeguard against problems, then reports its findings to Congress.
“We’re trying to avoid duplicating what’s already in place,” he said. “We have lots of great mechanisms for people concerned about issues to report those, and we don’t want add a new layer to that. What we want to do is make sure we gather the information about those complaints and report it to Congress.”
With only 20 employees, Reheuser said, the office reviews every DOD instruction and policy to make sure all follow privacy and civil liberties laws. Because of its small staff, the office relies on the military services and other DOD offices to inform its work, and share information about the office, he said.
The office’s priorities now are on reducing official uses of Social Security numbers and training employees on breach management on the privacy side, and on standing up the civil liberties side, Reheuser said.
With Social Security numbers, he said, “We want to make sure that, as a department, we are not unnecessarily using Social Security numbers because we know that if that information is stolen, it can lead to identity theft very quickly.”
Reheuser said he has received reports of unnecessary uses of Social Security numbers, such as service members having to present them to check out a volleyball at a gym. The office is assisting in the review of all forms used to collect Social Security numbers and eliminate all for which the numbers aren’t essential to business, he said.
The office also is working to train and educate service members and employees that they need to encrypt all email that contain personally identifiable information, and to send to people on a need-to-know basis only.
With more than 7 million computers and handheld devices in the department, “there are lots of ways that people inadvertently share personally identifiable information,” Reheuser said.
“If you’re relying solely on the firewalls, you probably should be more careful than that,” he said. “Encryption safeguards beyond firewalls.”
The privacy and civil liberties office doesn’t have the lead on social networking, but does monitor policies and practices, and offer training and advice. Mostly, Reheuser said, people just need to be more cautious.
“Social media is becoming more of a threat as more and more people use it, and they’re sloppy about it,” he said. “If you watch what people tweet, and what they blog, and what they post to Facebook, you wonder, ‘Did you really want to say that? Did you really think it through?’
“Our big catch phrase is, ‘Think before you post,’ ” he continued. “Think to yourself, would I put this on a sign in my front yard? If not, then you might not want to put it on the Internet, because once you put it up there, you can’t get it back.”
With more than 1,500 official DOD websites, there is no real way to monitor even official sites, Reheuser acknowledged, so the office is working to educate everyone on good Internet practices whether they work on official sites or for their own use.
“We rely a lot on the individual judgment of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and we’re trying to educate them and let them know that something that might be appropriate for a civilian to post, is not appropriate for a service member,” he said.
“People really do think, ‘This is mine, and I can say whatever I want on it,’ and of course we want to encourage freedom of speech,” he added. “But in the military, we don’t have as much freedom of speech as we do outside the military.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)