IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

NIST Wants to Improve Post-COVID Benefit Access and Security

The pandemic sparked billions of dollars worth of fraud in unemployment and other areas. Now the federal agency and its partners want to find ways to reduce crime while also easing access for people who need assistance.

Fresh EBT
Early results show Fresh EBT helps food stamp recipients stretch their benefits further and eat healthier.
Can public agencies reduce benefits fraud without shutting applicants out of programs or invading their privacy?

That’s the question facing NIST and its academic and nonprofit partners as they launch a program designed to improve the delivery of post-COVID-19 food, housing, medical and housing assistance.

One of the biggest lessons of COVID-19 was that quick and massive availability of benefits leads to historic levels of fraud, in part thanks to outdated government technology.

For instance, criminals might have stolen at least $135 billion via fraudulent unemployment claims, according to a federal estimate, though auditors continue to count the losses.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) wants to change that while making sure that more security doesn’t lead to fewer benefits.

NIST is working with the Digital Benefits Network at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology on a program designed to create fresh ways to confirm the identities of beneficiaries.

“To improve benefits delivery to the U.S. public, it is vital that agencies balance access and security,” said NIST Director Laurie E. Locascio in a statement. “Different populations have different needs, barriers and circumstances that must be considered, and this collaboration will bring together a diverse set of communities to do just that.”

As the three groups involved in this effort see it, facial recognition, data brokers and other paths to benefits security during the pandemic raised concerns about privacy, due process and bias, especially for minority groups.

In an attempt to fix that, this new collaboration will over the next two years collect ideas from administrators of state benefit programs, public agency cybersecurity officials, digital identity experts and others about how to better deliver services without sacrificing privacy or equity.

The process will include public workshops.

“People should be able to access public benefits programs without facing unfair technical barriers or compromising their privacy,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in the statement.

Any recommendations will be voluntary, with no enforcement, though the hope is that by giving this issue a higher public profile, progress will follow.