WASHINGTON - The Social Security Administration, criticized for making Americans' personal earnings and benefits records available on the Internet, won praise Thursday for a revised plan 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 Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate's Special Committee on Aging.
Acting Social Security Commissioner John J. Callahan announced Thursday that instead of scrapping its controversial online service altogether, 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," said Callahan, 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 a specific e-mail request that their benefit estimates be "unlocked" for Internet access. They will receive back by e-mail from Social Security an activation code to open their record, and will be able to lock it again when they've finished.
Activation codes will only be provided computer users who have a verifiable, individual Internet account - such as through an employer or an online subscriber service.
"It'll be much harder for someone to use this system to invade privacy," said Evan Hendricks, editor of the Washington-published Privacy Times.
The Social Security Administration 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 costs the government millions of dollars in postage annually. In spring 1996, the agency began accepting electronic mail requests for the records, responding initially only by regular mail.
Social Security launched direct electronic access to retirement records in March, attracting up to 8,500 users a day. But the agency suspended the interactive service a month later after critics complained that anyone with a person's Social Security number, mother's maiden name and state of birth could access their job history, salary and other personal information.
This summer, agency officials held six forums across the country, inviting advice from computer and privacy experts as well as the general public. They also reviewed more than 6,000 e-mail and telephone messages.
Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a group that defends civil liberties on the Internet, said "the worst thing that could have happened was that the Social Security Administration could have put their head in the sand."
"These are issues that are going to plague not just the government," Mulligan said. "I think it's very important that they've stepped up to the plate.... through a substantive, thorough and public process."
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