Sunday, January 15, 2017

Unique Identity: the American Solution

Some countries, like Estonia and Burkina Faso, try to assign a unique identifier to each citizen.

Others, like the U.S., don't.  Instead we have workarounds.  One of the latest which has comet to my attention is the Food and Nutrition Service's "Electronic Disqualified Recipient System (eDRS).  This seems to be a file of people who have been disqualified for food stamps (aka SNAP) because of fraud.  FNS is now notifying the public it will furnish the file to each of the states so they can verify SNAP recipients against the file.

One might consider this to be somewhat similar to the "do not fly" list, where civil liberties people protest the lack of procedures for challenging the contents.  But it seems likely from this bit in the MD manual that there is a process for determining fraud:

Fraud overpayments. Consider cases suspected of fraud to be client error overpayments until the court or an Administrative Disqualification Hearing (ADH) makes a determination of fraud. Consider an overpayment in any month in which a client files a false report timely and this results in an overpayment to be a client error overpayment. This applies even if there is an agency error in the same month, unless the agency caused the client's failure to report.


Anonymous said...

Ummmmmm...the U.S. doesn't? What about our SS#?

Bill Harshaw said...

The law specifically said the SS# wasn't supposed to be a unique identifier. Subsequent laws (like around 1990) prohibited agencies from sharing information across department lines, except with involved process. My impression is that's become mostly a dead letter.

Because the SS# was deployed in various silos, it doesn't work like a unique identifier. Look at the problems in sharing data among SSA, IRS, and the agencies, especially for the dead. IMHO the closest thing we have to a unique identifier now is the email address, which is often used by websites to store user data. By definition it's unique. But email address lacks the other key attribute, which the SS# does better: ensuring a person/entity has only one SS#. (Generally speaking there's no advantage and considerable disadvantage to a person having multiple SS#s.) That seems to be what Estonia and other countries are doing.

Anonymous said...

OK I see what you are saying.

I will use your reasoning with the IRS the next time I file my taxes, telling them they don't need my SS#. Or the next time I get a bank loan. Or when I apply for health insurance. Or when I change jobs. How about when you applied for retirement? Did you tell them it was not needed?

My point is that this number is being used as a unique identifier already by many operations, particularly the government.

Bill Harshaw said...

I see I wasn't very clear.:-( Yes, SSN became a de facto unique identifier as computerization spread beyond SSA/IRS to everyone, and before the rise of email. It was easier for system designers to ask for the SSN and use that as the key for records than to assign a customer ID and require the customer to use it. And that ease of use overrode the legal provisions on not using it outside the SSA/IRS system.

In the early days of the Internet AOL or whoever would ask for a user name and validate whether it was unique, but now most apps have evolved to just using the email address to uniquely identifying the user. (plus password).