In the face of increasing concerns about Internet privacy, the Social Security Administration announced Thursday that by the end of this year it will launch a modified version of its popular online service allowing taxpayers to view their retirement benefits.
The announcement comes just one week after an independent report concluded that agencies are not doing enough to protect the privacy of visitors to their World Wide Web sites.
The online Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES) lets people view their year-by-year earnings history, Social Security taxes paid, and estimates of retirement, disability and survivor benefits they and their family members are eligible to receive.
Acting SSA Commissioner John Callahan suspended the original online PEBES service in April due to accusations that the system failed to protect confidential information.
After conducting several public forums across the country and researching Internet privacy issues, SSA developed a report entitled "Privacy and Customer Service in the Electronic Age" and devised what it says is a safer version of PEBES.
"We recognize that the Internet is here to stay, and we plan to make use of it to enhance our customer service," Callahan said at a press briefing to announce the new PEBES.
To access information in the revised version, customers must have a registered electronic mail account with an employer or Internet service provider, and must provide five authenticating elements: their name, Social Security number, date of birth, state of birth and mother's maiden name.
When this information is sent to SSA, the user will receive an activation code by e-mail to access their PEBES statement.
However, users will not be able to view their detailed earning history on the Internet. Social Security will mail this information to the user's home address if it is requested.
"Nothing is 100 percent secure," conceded Callahan. "But the risks have been minimized. Nothing is more important to Social Security than maintaining the public's confidence."
Rep. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., chairman of the House committee that oversees Social Security, criticized the new system and asked Callahan to delay plans for its reinstatement.
"I am not convinced that the Social Security Administration has reached a safe balance between user privacy and easy access to records," said Bunning.