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Social Security info back online

The Social Security Administration reinstates a Web site shuttered in April following privacy concerns, giving taxpayers access to benefits calculations.

    The Social Security Administration will reinstate an Internet site that was shuttered in April because of privacy concerns, giving taxpayers access to calculations of their future retirement benefits.>

    However, bowing to public outcry, the site will not make workers' earnings histories available online, according to an agency spokesman.

    The decision, outlined in a report released today, is the agency's response to privacy concerns raised earlier this year when it began offering access to personal earnings and benefits records on the Internet.

    At a press conference today in Washington, D.C., acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration John J. Callahan restated his agency's commitment to the privacy of those who will use the agency's revamped Web site in the future.

    "Nothing is more important to Social Security than maintaining the public's confidence in our ability to protect the privacy of the personal information we maintain in our records," Callahan said in a statement. "I pledged that this agency would get the views both of experts and members of the public on how we could strengthen our security and confidentiality features" before restoring the site.

    He added the agency conducted public forums in six cities around the country in May and June, gathering feedback from specialists in the fields of privacy, consumer advocacy, computer security, and commercial Internet service, as well as users.

    Based on what the agency learned at the forums, Callahan said he feels the new features included in the revamped site provide "sufficient protection of individual privacy" to justify its return on the Internet.

    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 that have an individual Internet account will be able to see the records. 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.

    For about ten years, Social Security offered Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statements by mail. On March 5, in response to requests from Net users, the agency began a test to provide the same information online.

    The service was scrapped one month later to conduct an evaluation of the system's security features after sensitive financial information, including a person's earnings history, could be obtained and exploited by former spouses, employers, coworkers, intrusive Net surfers, or credit agencies.

    Callahan said other security and privacy measures are in the works. "We will devote resources as necessary to assure that our existing strong technical security system keeps pace with technology. We will make changes in our internal procedures to assure that SSA considers the privacy implications of any major initiative and consults on those initiatives with the privacy community."