GAO: Data sharing saves money, threatens privacy

GAO: Data sharing saves money, threatens privacy

By Dennis Blank

Special to GCN

When agencies cross-match data to avoid making benefits overpayments or giving loans to unqualified borrowers, the chance of compromising personal information rises, the General Accounting Office reported recently.

Although the use of matching programs generally saves the government money, the possibility of privacy abuse is a chief argument made against such data sharing, GAO said.

'It can hinder the public's ability to monitor what the government is doing with personal information that citizens provide to specific agencies for specific reasons,' GAO said in its report, The Challenge of Data Sharing: Results of a GAO-Sponsored Program on Benefit and Loan Programs.

To ensure security, some agencies are studying the use of biometric authentication. GAO said some state government agencies, for instance, are sharing biometric fingerprint files to verify identity and to check welfare histories.

After analyzing matching programs at several federal agencies, the congressional watchdog agency concluded that agencies have recouped dramatic savings from cross-checking data files against those of other agencies, including other federal agencies, state and local agencies, and financial organizations.

The Social Security Administration saves about $675 million a year by matching its Supplemental Security Income rolls against data from a dozen other agencies and 4,000 state and local jails, said Pete Monaghan, SSA's director of information exchange and computer matching.

Big savings

SSA also does cross-checks of the agency's records against those of banks. For instance, one recent quality assurance review turned up unreported account balances that helped the agency identify $240 million in SSI overpayments.

But SSA's experiences with banks are not comparable to other agencies', the Electronic Payments Association told GAO.

'Obtaining timely and accurate bank account information from the 20,000 financial institutions in the United States has not been cost-effective for agencies administering needs-based benefits programs,' the Herndon, Va., association said. 'Automating the process would greatly reduce the burden of requesting and retrieving such information for both the agencies and the financial institutions.'

The association, whose members include banks and other financial organizations, suggested the creation of a centralized list of government beneficiaries that financial institutions could match against data about account holders. If the information were shared by all agencies, the association said, financial organizations could avoid repeatedly responding to similar inquiries.

GAO said the federal government could pattern a nationwide network for sharing benefits data on a Defense Manpower Data Center program that maintains information about 23 million beneficiaries. The Defense Department personnel center tracks information such as medical, dental, immunization and pharmaceutical records, benefit entitlements and security clearances.

The DOD system can respond within four seconds to a request and gets about 1 million requests a day from 1,400 locations.

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