Social Security Administration: Internet Access to Personal Earnings and Benefits Information

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-05-06.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Social Security
                          Committee on Ways and Means
                          House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
3 p.m.
                          SOCIAL SECURITY
May 6, 1997               ADMINISTRATION

                          Internet Access to Personal
                          Earnings and Benefits
                          Statement of Joel C. Willemssen
                          Director, Information Resources Management
                          Keith A. Rhodes
                          Technical Director, Office of the Chief Scientist
                          Accounting and Information Management Division

                        Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

                        We appreciate this opportunity to participate in the Subcommittee’s
                        hearing on privacy and security concerns relating to the Social Security
                        Administration’s (SSA) recent experiences in providing personal benefits
                        estimates to individuals via the Internet. Mr. Chairman, both you and the
                        Ranking Minority Member have expressed concerns about whether SSA’s
                        interactive benefits estimates service adequately protects the privacy of
                        Americans and whether unauthorized access to confidential information is
                        taking place over the Internet. Such concerns are understandable. SSA, as
                        administrator of the nation’s largest federal benefits program, touches the
                        life of almost every American. It is essential that citizens be able to trust
                        that the agency is safeguarding the personal information it collects.

                        While we have just initiated a review of SSA’s use of the Internet to
                        disseminate benefits estimates, we have, however, reported on computer
                        and Internet security and on the risks facing agencies in providing
                        electronic access to data.1 Our remarks today will, therefore, focus on
                        general privacy and security considerations that federal agencies should
                        address to safeguard any sensitive information made available as a public
                        service via the Internet.

                        As you know, Mr. Chairman, for just under 10 years, SSA has been
Providing Personal      providing a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES) to
Earnings and Benefits   any individual requesting it. The statement includes a yearly record of
Information Via the     earnings, estimates of Social Security taxes paid, estimates of retirement
                        and disability benefits, and potential survivor benefits should the
Internet                individual die. Legislation2 mandated that beginning in fiscal year 1995,
                        PEBES be sent to all eligible U.S. workers aged 60 and over; beginning
                        October 1, 1999, it is scheduled to be sent annually to all eligible workers
                        aged 25 and over—an estimated 123 million people.3 As we reported last
                        year, the public has found PEBES to be a useful financial planning tool.4

                         See our report entitled Information Security: Computer Attacks at Department of Defense Pose
                        Increasing Risks (GAO/AIMD-96-84 and GAO/T-AIMD-96-92, May 22, 1996) and our testimony entitled
                        Information Security: Computer Hacker Information Available on the Internet (GAO/T-AIMD-96-108,
                        June 5, 1996).
                         Public laws 101-239 (December 19, 1989) and 101-508 (November 5, 1990).
                         Besides the age requirement, eligibility entails having a Social Security number, having wages or net
                        earnings from self-employment, not presently receiving Social Security benefits, and having a current
                        address obtainable by SSA.
                         See SSA Benefit Statements: Well Received by the Public but Difficult to Comprehend
                        (GAO/HEHS-97-19, December 5, 1996).

                        Page 1                                                                   GAO/T-AIMD/HEHS-97-123
SSA  has recently tried to educate the public about the importance of its
programs and availability of information, such as the PEBES statement; this
initiative to provide “world class service” was—at least in part—in
reaction to surveys showing public confidence in SSA programs at a low
level. While much of this perception may relate to continual discussion
about SSA’s financial viability, officials at the agency have stated that they
are attempting to be more responsive to customer desires. As part of this
initiative, the agency last year began permitting individuals to request
PEBES through the Internet, with the document being sent by mail. This was
seen as a new alternative to visiting an SSA office in person or using its
toll-free telephone number.

In March of this year, in an effort to be as responsive as possible, SSA
began permitting on-line dissemination of the statement to individuals.
Using the Internet for this purpose was a planned part of the agency’s
electronic service delivery project, a component of its business plan for
fiscal years 1997-2001. According to this plan, the project would ensure
that among other items, “integrity and confidentiality of client data are

According to SSA officials, before taking the step of transmitting PEBES data
over the Internet, they spent a year testing and consulting with outside
experts, including those in the areas of privacy and computer security.
Among the security features intended to preserve individual privacy was
the requirement for an individual to enter five authenticating elements into
the system in order to access the data. These elements were name, Social
Security number, date and place of birth, and mother’s maiden name.

In early April, press reports of privacy concerns over the availability of this
information via the Internet sparked widespread reaction—including the
fear that those not entitled to the information could access it without
difficulty. Experts also questioned the adequacy of the five key pieces of
information needed to obtain the data, pointing out that three of the five
are available in public databases. With this publicity, according to SSA
officials, attempts to access the data at SSA’s web site6 escalated from
about 10 to 80 per second.

 Business Plan, Fiscal Years 1997-2001, SSA publication no. 01-008, April 1996.
 The World Wide Web (www), as its name implies, is a vast collection of interconnected computers
spanning the world. A web site refers to any computer on the web and its particular web address.
SSA’s web site, then, is the location at which its PEBES data can be found.

Page 2                                                                   GAO/T-AIMD/HEHS-97-123
                       SSA officials believed the situation was well in hand, that the security
                       measures taken were sufficient. They pointed out that, as of April 7,
                       security screening denied access to about 9,000 of the 27,000 requests for
                       on-line PEBES data. SSA officials stated that while they monitored many
                       attempts to break into the system, none succeeded.

                       On April 9, after public outcry and concerns about the privacy of sensitive
                       information, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security suspended
                       on-line receipt of PEBES data.

                       Mr. Chairman, we see this issue as one of balance. While SSA has attempted
                       to be responsive to the needs of its customers, the question is how—and,
                       given the risks involved, whether—to do this via the Internet. If the
                       decision is made to use the Internet in this way, the question is whether
                       SSA is doing everything possible to ensure that sensitive information is not
                       compromised. Convenience with undue risk to security is no bargain.

                       This is especially important because the interactive PEBES project is just
                       one of many initiatives planned for the next few years that are intended to
                       make greater use of technology. Other SSA efforts under the electronic
                       service delivery umbrella include third-party access (using technology to
                       allow others, such as state or local government employees or
                       advocacy-group members, to assist individuals in dealing with SSA), dial-up
                       bulletin boards, touchtone telephone access (for less sensitive customer
                       records), and even interactive cable television.7

                       In the last few years, the use of the Internet has grown tremendously and
Information Security   has placed a vast array of information at the fingertips of millions of users.
on the Internet        This is due primarily to the availability of tools that have made the Internet
                       much easier to use. As a result, we have witnessed a rush to connect to the
                       Internet; today there are over 40 million users worldwide.

                       Despite this growth and leap in ease of use, the Internet has inherent
                       security risks because of the way it was designed. The Internet is a
                       complex network that has evolved over the last decade from an initially
                       limited and experimental link of interconnected computers. The network,
                       developed for the most part by scientists and engineers, was initially
                       designed to test how a military command and control system could get
                       messages through in a post-nuclear environment without regard to
                       security. To do this, the network was built so that a message would use

                        These projects are described briefly in SSA publication no. 01-008, April 1996.

                       Page 3                                                                    GAO/T-AIMD/HEHS-97-123
any available path to its destination, regardless of how many “dead ends” it
encountered. The most important element of the network was, therefore,
its robustness, or tenacity—not security.

The relative insecurity of the Internet makes using it as a vehicle for
transmitting sensitive data—such as personal Social Security
information—a decision requiring careful consideration. In such an
environment, one must weigh added convenience against the potential
compromise and misuse of such information—and the potential damage to
the database itself. In considering such trade-offs, it is important to
remember that, whether on-line or not, Social Security benefits
information is available through means other than electronic.

Computer hackers8 have for years exploited the security weaknesses of
systems connected to the Internet.9 The growing number of people having
access to the Internet—any one of whom is a potential hacker—coupled
with the rapid growth of and reliance on interconnected computers, has
made cyberspace a dangerous frontier. Informal groups of hackers openly
share information on how to break into computer systems. Despite
security features that boast ever-increasing sophistication, hackers have
more tools and techniques than ever before, and the number of attacks on
systems is growing each day.10 As a result, the need for secure information
systems and networks has never been greater.

This problem is directly affecting federal systems. Interconnectivity,
combined with poor security management, is placing billions of dollars’
worth of assets at risk of loss, and vast amounts of sensitive data at risk of
unauthorized disclosure. While greater use of interconnected systems
offers significant benefits, such systems are much more vulnerable to
malicious attack by anonymous intruders—an increasing threat to our
national welfare. Consequently, information security has been added to
our list of government programs designated as high-risk because of
vulnerabilities to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement.11

 The term hacker refers to any individual who, though unauthorized, attempts to penetrate a computer
information system; browse, steal, or modify data; deny access or service to others; or cause damage
or harm in some other way.
 See GAO/AIMD-96-84 and GAO/T-AIMD-96-92, May 22, 1996, and GAO/T-AIMD-96-108, June 5, 1996.
 Testimony of Richard Pethia, Software Engineering Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh,
before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Governmental Affairs, United
States Senate, June 5, 1996.
    High-Risk Series: Information Management and Technology (GAO/HR-97-9, February 1997).

Page 4                                                                 GAO/T-AIMD/HEHS-97-123
                         Making information systems more secure is complicated, not only by the
Implementing             huge numbers of people having access to them, but also by the complexity
Computer Security:       of most systems themselves. Most large organizations have, along with
Protect, Detect, React   personal workstation computers, mainframes, software applications,
                         servers, routers, and external connections. These systems use a variety of
                         products from a number of different vendors. Fully understanding the
                         security weaknesses caused by the complex interrelationships of these
                         products is a difficult task. Accordingly, absolute computer security is not
                         possible. In developing effective systems security, officials must, then,
                         consider what level of risk is acceptable. Such a decision will hinge on
                         issues such as the type and sensitivity of the information, how vulnerable
                         to attack the computers and networks are, where potential threats might
                         come from, available countermeasures, and costs.

                         For most organizations, a prudent approach involves determining an
                         appropriate level of protection, then ensuring that any security breaches
                         that do occur can be effectively detected and countered. This generally
                         means establishing (1) a comprehensive program with top management
                         commitment, sufficient resources, and clearly defined roles and
                         responsibilities, (2) clear, consistent, and up-to-date security policies and
                         procedures, (3) periodic vulnerability assessments to identify security
                         weaknesses, (4) security awareness training, (5) sufficient time and
                         training for systems administrators and information security personnel,
                         (6) efficient use of automated security tools, and (7) a robust
                         incident-response capability, so that attacks can be detected and a
                         response initiated quickly in order to aggressively track and prosecute the

                         The first point just mentioned, about roles and responsibilities, is
                         essential. In determining these, a decision must be made on identifying the
                         owners of information versus the stewards of information. Owners are
                         ultimately responsible for the decision on what level of security risk to
                         accept, while stewards manage that risk. A recent example of a
                         government agency’s handling of electronic data in the steward role rather
                         than the owner role was when the Internal Revenue Service introduced the
                         proposal of electronically filing tax returns. In this case, it left the decision
                         of whether to put one’s sensitive data into cyberspace with the individual,
                         the owner.

                         Turning to detection of an attack once one has been made, organizations
                         use two basic methods: system audits and monitoring. These terms are
                         used loosely within the computer security community and often overlap. A

                         Page 5                                                   GAO/T-AIMD/HEHS-97-123
                   system audit is a one-time or periodic security evaluation. Monitoring, in
                   contrast, refers to an ongoing activity that examines either the system or
                   its users. In general, the more “real-time” an activity is, the closer it is to

                   In terms of reaction, an organization should address computer security
                   incidents by developing an incident-handling capability. Commonly
                   referred to as a computer emergency-response team, it is typically used to
                   provide the ability to respond quickly and effectively, contain and repair
                   damage from incidents, and prevent future damage.

                   In developing Internet PEBES service, SSA used both government and private
SSA’s Actions to   consultants. The Los Alamos National Laboratory provided a detailed
Address Security   report, including suggested solutions for addressing Internet security risks.
                   Extensive support was also received from the CommerceNet consortium,12
                    as well as from individual private companies. Along with phased testing of
                   “PEBES-By-Mail” and interactive PEBES, SSA took a number of measures that
                   officials believed would adequately safeguard requesters’ privacy, the
                   system itself, and the data it contains. For example, both the request data
                   and the on-line response utilize a form of encryption; further, according to
                   SSA, requesters cannot directly query, browse, or download SSA records.

                   SSA officials further state that automated transaction information is
                   continually captured electronically, allowing SSA to audit system use and
                   identify potential abuse; multiple attempts to obtain the same data are
                   automatically restricted; and bulk requests are not honored. SSA officials
                   add that individuals are alerted to on-line risks inherent in using the
                   Internet to obtain PEBES data and are offered alternative methods. They are
                   also warned of criminal penalties for the intentional misuse of Social
                   Security data.13 Finally, other measures were taken, whose disclosure by
                   us today could compromise their effectiveness.

                   Despite these measures, however, detection of and action against security
                   breaches is not simple. It is very difficult to track down computer-system
                   abusers and, existing laws notwithstanding, prosecution is rare; one
                   reason is that acceptable electronic evidence is not yet clearly defined.

                    CommerceNet is an industry consortium dedicated to accelerating the growth of the Internet and
                   creating business opportunities for its members.
                     Four laws are cited: 42 U.S.C. 408 (misuse of Social Security number), 5 U.S.C. 552(a) (Privacy Act),
                   18 U.S.C. 1030 (misuse of computer), and 18 U.S.C. 1001 (false statements or entries). Penalties range
                   from fines with maximums of $5000 or $10,000 and jail terms up to 10 years.

                   Page 6                                                                    GAO/T-AIMD/HEHS-97-123
           Mr. Chairman, as we stated earlier, we have just initiated our work and
           therefore cannot yet conclude whether SSA implemented a prudent
           approach to address the security risks in providing Internet PEBES service.
           Although the agency took steps it thought would render its data and
           system secure, we do not know whether they have succeeded. However,
           we do offer the following observations.

           We commend the Acting Commissioner’s decision to suspend the service
           while investigating the adequacy of the security measures that have been
           taken. We also urge caution before any decision is made to resume the

           The Internet security issue is so large and daunting that SSA, like every
           other federal organization, will have to rely on commercial solutions and
           outside expert opinion. This reliance poses hurdles because the
           commercial sector, experts, and standards-setting bodies have not yet
           reached consensus on how to best solve Internet security problems.

           It is important for SSA—and every other agency considering Internet
           access—to decide whether it will be the steward or owner of the
           information it holds. Being the steward implies a vast job of making the
           American public knowledgeable about computer security; being the owner
           confers upon SSA the responsibility to assess the potential threat to its data
           with the utmost care and restraint.

           Regardless of the direction it takes on the owner/steward issue, SSA will
           need to demonstrate that it has performed a comprehensive risk
           assessment of the data so that the level of protection required can be
           clearly defined. Accompanying this task will be the need to provide an
           adequate training and awareness program that will enable users to
           understand the risks of Internet access.

           Mr. Chairman, this concludes our statement. We would be happy to
           respond to any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee may
           have at this time.

(511219)   Page 7                                                 GAO/T-AIMD/HEHS-97-123
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