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Privacy Concerns Short-Circuit
Social Security's Online Service

By John Schwartz and Barbara J. Saffir
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 1997; Page A23

The Social Security Administration yesterday pulled the plug on a breakthrough online service -- at least temporarily -- after a bipartisan group of senators sent a harshly critical letter to the agency outlining privacy concerns.

"For the next 60 days, we will be conducting public forums in Washington and across the country on this issue," John J. Callahan, acting commissioner of Social Security, said at a hastily convened news conference. "Nothing is more important to Social Security than maintaining the public's confidence."

The Social Security Administration introduced the program on its World Wide Web site last month to give consumers easier access to their own "Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statements" (PEBES), records commonly used for retirement planning. The new program, like the slower mail-order system that preceded it, required users to provide name, Social Security number, address, place and date of birth and mother's maiden name. But critics charged that such information is readily available to cyber-snoopers from public sources.

In their letter delivered yesterday, the senators said, "Although we support the Social Security Administration's efforts to make PEBES more readily available, we are concerned that `PEBES Online' may not afford sufficient protections against violations of individual privacy." Senders were William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), John Breaux (D-La.), John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), as well as Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the Senate's party leaders.

"Basically it was a good idea, but badly executed," Roth said in an interview.

"Surfing the Web should not mean surfing into people's private lives," Chafee said in a statement.

Since the site came under scrutiny in the news media earlier this week, nearly 10,000 people called the agency's toll-free number to complain. Visits to the site skyrocketed: Until the first news reports, about 7,000 people a week used the site. There were 8,000 visitors on Tuesday alone, and many others complained that they could not get in.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the program, with proper security precautions, should be preserved because it gets important information to consumers at no cost. "It's unfortunate for the agency and for the American taxpayer that they had to pull the service," said Leahy, who compared permanent elimination of the plan to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

The incident already has led to calls for new regulation. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.) said he is introducing legislation to ban information about individuals' earnings, tax records and Social Security benefits on the Internet. But Deirdre Mulligan of the Center for Democracy and Technology said that "knee-jerk" bills will end up hurting the public interest and the Internet as well. "We're going to get some draconian, reactionary pieces of legislation that are going to stunt the growth of this medium," Mulligan said.

Another privacy advocate said yesterday that the SSA dust-up was evidence of broader concerns. "This week the Social Security Administration became a lightning rod for growing public sentiment that the privacy problem is out of control," said Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Recent revelations about IRS agents delving into personal files for profit and continuing worries about privacy protection for medical records have generated new pressures for reform, Rotenberg said. "It is going to take the creation of commissions, the passage of laws and a change in business practices before the consumer confidence and public confidence are restored," Rotenberg said.

Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant, said any attempt to provide real security for databases like the SSA's would eventually run into controversy over consumer opposition to any form of a national identification card.

Gellman, who is working with an advisory panel to the Department of Health and Human Services on privacy protections for medical information, said the congressional uproar over the SSA database was ironic. Lawmakers, Gellman said, recently passed a number of new data-tracking initiatives, including databases of new job hires, immigrants and sex offenders. "The last Congress passed so many new requirements, it's sort of government by database," he added.

"On the one hand, something happens and they scream about privacy," Gellman said. "And the next day they vote to create a new database."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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