YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Social Security Details Plan for Revised Online Service

September 05, 1997| From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Social Security Administration, criticized for making Americans' personal earnings and benefits records available on the Internet, on Thursday won some praise for a revised plan that former critics said exemplifies how the government should operate in the age of cyberspace.

"Hopefully, other agencies who must balance privacy concerns with the public's need to access information can learn from [Social Security's] experience," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate's Special Committee on Aging.

However, Grassley's House counterpart, Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), asked acting Social Security Commissioner John Callahan to postpone plans to make information available on the Internet.

"I am not convinced that the Social Security Administration has reached a safe balance between user privacy and easy access to records," Bunning said.

Callahan earlier announced that instead of scrapping its controversial online service, his agency will roll out a more modest and secure version by the end of this year.

"We recognize that the Internet is here to stay, and we want to make use of it," Callahan said.

For now, people will be able to get online estimates of the retirement benefits due them, but the earnings and tax histories used to make those calculations will be sent out only through the regular mail.

"That was viewed to be the most sensitive information on our records," Callahan said, but added: "We feel that if we get to a higher level of technology . . it's entirely possible that we could put that information back on the Internet."

To further ensure the safety of the service, Callahan said people will have to make specific e-mail requests that their benefit estimates be "unlocked" for Internet access. They will then receive by e-mail activation codes to open their records, and will be able to lock them when they've finished.

Activation codes will be provided only to computer users who have a verifiable individual Net account.

The agency has offered people access to their earnings and benefits records for more than a decade by regular mail. Between 3 million and 4 million Americans a year use the service.

But that can take four to six weeks and cost the government millions of dollars a year in postage. In spring 1996, the agency began accepting e-mail requests and responding by regular mail.

In March, it launched direct electronic access to records, drawing up to 8,500 users a day. But the agency halted the service a month later after critics said anyone with a person's Social Security number, mother's maiden name and state of birth could access job history, salary and other personal information.

Los Angeles Times Articles