updated 10:14 am EDT, Tue May 6, 2014
New program gives single credential for benefits, other government services
The United States has awarded Michigan and Pennsylvania grants to launch pilot programs of the proposed National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC). The test is intended to evaluate "new online technologies to improve access to government services and the delivery of federal assistance programs to reduce fraud." However, critics and privacy advocates are unenthused about the new government initiative, and suspect it could further erode online privacy.
The government-led program, proposed by President Obama and managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology three years ago, is supposed to "utilize secure, efficient, easy-to-use and interoperable identity credentials to access online services in a manner that promotes confidence, privacy, choice and innovation" with a common, government-issued identifier.
Michigan will integrate the new program with Bridges, the state's existing integrated eligibility system, which supports online enrollment and registration for citizens seeking public assistance. Today in Michigan, all applicants for public assistance and other services must appear in person to have their identity verified -- often more than once. The pilot project will also evaluate how residents can more securely access their private information, using multi-factor authentication solutions in lieu of passwords.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania pilot will offer residents a secure, privacy-enhancing credential to conduct online transactions with a number of participating agencies, including the departments of Public Welfare and Health. Citizens will be able to register just once to access a variety of services, eliminating the need to create multiple accounts and to validate their identity multiple times. If successful, these higher-security accounts will allow new types of online transactions, while also helping the state reduce assistance abuse and fraud.
Consumer privacy advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation is skeptical of the program. It said that "the draft NSTIC now calls for pervasive, authenticated digital IDs, and makes scant mention of the unprecedented threat such a scheme would pose to privacy and free speech online." It added that "while the draft NSTIC does not advocate for the establishment of a national identification card, it's far from clear that it won't take us dangerously far down that road. Because the draft NSTIC is vague about many basic points, the White House must proceed with caution and avoid rushing past the tricks that lay ahead."