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Subcommittee still worries about SSA site

Days after Social Security announced the reopening of its Web site, a House subcommittee asks that the agency delay the move until further steps are taken to protect users' privacy.

    Just days after the Social Security Administration announced the reopening of its Internet site that offers taxpayers access to calculations of their future retirement benefits, a congressional subcommittee has asked that the agency delay the move until further measures are taken to protect users' privacy.

    Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Kentucky), the chairman of the House subcommittee on Social Security, said that without more detail on how the SSA will implement privacy safeguards, he is not convinced that the agency has reached a safe balance between user privacy and easy access to records.

    The SSA shut down the service in April after concerns that sensitive financial information, including a person's earnings history, could be obtained and exploited by employers, coworkers, former spouses, intrusive Net surfers, or credit agencies. (See related story)

    Last week, the agency announced it would reopen the site with new privacy measures in place. For example, with the new service, expected to be online by January, taxpayers will have to make a specific request before their benefits estimates are put in an Internet-accessible database. Only computer users who have an individual Internet account will be able to see the records.

    In addition, access won't be possible through anonymous Internet connections such as those available for public use at libraries or at increasingly popular Internet cafes, SSA officials said.

    However, Bunning said the above measures are not enough. In a letter to acting Social Security commissioner John Callahan, Bunning said he is "deeply disappointed by the content and finality of your decision."

    But not all observers are so quick to criticize the SSA's latest action. Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), said she believes the agency has addressed the privacy concerns first raised with the Web site's first launch.

    "I do think that SSA did look into this carefully," she added. "They've put in place a complete oversight process. Most of us feel they have found a balance between the privacy issue and easy access to records."

    Mulligan said she welcomes the congressman's interest in the protection of individual privacy but noted it might be aimed at the wrong governmental agency. "I think there are other areas of the privacy issue that Congress should keep an eye law enforcement and encryption."

    For now, though, Bunning has taken aim at the SSA. He has called on the agency to work with his subcommittee before proceeding with the implementation of the service. "I can see no reason to hastily proceed."

    The Kentucky Republican added he is willing to hold hearings on the matter.

    The SSA has not responded to Bunning's request.