SSA pioneers voice print app for W-2 system

By testing voice print biometrics to give users access to its online wage reporting system, the Social Security Administration again will push the limits of IT.

SSA has tried to be on the forefront of the online service-to-the-citizen movement, sometimes to the dismay of privacy advocates who often have criticized the agency's efforts.

SSA officials were quick to note, however, that the biometric test is only a proof-of-concept project so far. For the near future, SSA will rely on personal identification numbers, passwords and a public-key infrastructure to secure access to electronic services.

SSA made 'a huge leap' in efficiency by letting employers file W-2 wage reports online at, and the voice print authentication of filers by telephone is the next step, SSA project manager Chuck Liptz said.

Until now, SSA has authorized each electronic filer by requiring a supervisor's approval and sending a PIN by postal mail or e-mail.

For the voice print test, which began early this month, 'we'll see if employers think it's an easier way to do business,' Liptz said. 'We don't want to implement technology without including the people it's going to affect.' The test will run for about three months, he said.

SSA received about 100 million wage reports from employers for tax year 2001.

A couple of dozen employers filing their 2002 W-2s volunteered to record their voice prints, reading employer ID numbers and other information, which they later repeat over the phone for each Web filing session.

The combination of PIN and voice print is legally binding, Liptz said, and the voice print file size is 'just a few bytes.'

Authentify Inc. of Chicago helped SSA set up the biometric authentication test. The 'no training, no software, no hardware' approach will cut costs and could become a model for other government online authentication projects, said Authentify's John Zurawski, vice president of sales and marketing.

Seeking alternatives

The agency has installed many checks and balances to make W-2 information tamperproof, Liptz said. And the agency will continue using its PKI program, storing employers' signatures that have been encrypted using hashing algorithms.

But SSA wants to explore other options because issuing PINs and passwords is slow and costly, Liptz said. 'We're looking to see if there is a way to speed up the process.'

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