The viability of filing tax returns via the Internet received a serious knock-back this week when the US Social Security Administration (SSA) was forced to shut down a month old tax record Web site after discovering that anyone could access anyone else?s personal finance information.
The SSA introduced the Pebes Online site last month to give US citizens easier access to their own financial records - the Personal Earnings and Benefits Statements - and make the self-assessment tax process easier and more cost effective. The site allows taxpayers to look up their salary details, the amount of tax they pay to fund social security and the level of social security benefit to which they are entitled.
But the site was shut down abruptly on Wednesday after it was revealed that the personal data stored on it could be accessed by anyone knowing some easily obtained information. To access someone else?s records, all that is needed is that person?s name, address, phone number, place of birth, social security number and mother?s maiden name. No special personal identification number is needed.
Evan Hendricks, chairman of the US Privacy Council, warned: ?We need something to discourage the wolves. As soon as crooks start exploiting this service to get other people?s information, Social Security is going to have a real problem on its hands.?
Once onto the site, it is possible to obtain financial details of a chosen individual, such as how much he or she has earned each year dating back as far as 1951. News of the security dangers led to an immediate outcry from US senators, who dubbed the site a tool for economic blackmail. One Democratic senator demanded that financial and tax records should be banned from the Internet completely.
The administration has yet to concede that there is a serious security problem with its system but did admit that end user lack of confidence in its integrity meant that its value as a public service was negligible. On Wednesday, Pebes Online was temporarily taken off-line and a series of technical and security consultants commissioned to overhaul the site.
John Callahan, acting commissioner of Social Security, said: "For the next 60 days, we will be conducting public forums in Washington and across the country on this issue. Nothing is more important to Social Security than maintaining the public's confidence in our ability to carry out one of our primary missions of protecting privacy of the sensitive data we maintain on American citizens.?
Pebes Online was set up to cut down the administrative overheads of a paper-based service which provided the same information by post. Last year alone, the administration sent out 4 million tax information reports at average cost of $5.23 a time. By contrast, it costs less than a penny to process the same data using the online system. Republican senator John Chefee conceded: ?Intentions good, but result bad.?
Since news of the security holes emerged at the beginning of this week, there has been a massive increase in the number of viistors to the site. By Monday, only 7,000 people had used Pebes Online since it was switched on in early March. But on Tuesday alone, 8,000 hits were registered on the site.
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