Feds nix welfare data use in hiring - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Feds nix welfare data use in hiring

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Indianaopolis - Indiana's human services agency considered letting a private contractor use the state's welfare database to screen potential employees until federal food stamp officials told them it was inappropriate and not allowed.

Documents provided to The Associated Press under an open records request show that Affiliated Computer Services Inc. sought permission from the Family and Social Services Administration to use the state's welfare data to screen job applicants for fraud or other welfare program violations.

The U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the food stamp program, objected when it learned from FSSA in July that the state agency might share the data.

"Even if such a use were permissible, it would be an inaccurate and inappropriate tool for job evaluation" because the data might be outdated, Regional FNS Administrator Ollice Holden wrote in an Aug. 28 letter to FSSA.

An executive with Affiliated Computer Services said the Dallas-based company never used the data to screen job applicants.

The data-sharing proposal, however, raises questions about the privacy of the personal financial information and other data that qualifies 1.2 million Indiana adults and children for food stamps, Medicaid and other welfare benefits. It also creates a new point of contention about the privatized welfare system already criticized because of lost documents, poor service and lengthy delays in getting benefits to recipients.

"The more people who have your data, the greater likelihood that either they're going to lose it or a rogue employee will abuse it," said information privacy expert Fred Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington.

The information is entered into FSSA's Indiana Client Eligibility System database when someone applies for benefits. The data includes Social Security numbers, income including child support, home addresses, bank account balances and housing expenses.

Affiliated Computer Services has had access to ICES data for limited purposes since 2007 under FSSA's 10-year, $1.34 billion contract with Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. to privatize and automate welfare intake. ACS is a partner with IBM in the project.

Under a "change request" to the terms of the contract earlier this year, ACS sought permission to use the ICES database to screen people applying for jobs with the IBM-ACS coalition of welfare vendors for any past violations in obtaining benefits. The request was included in an annual update on the project that FSSA sent the Food and Nutrition Service on July 1.

After Holden, the Food and Nutrition Service administrator, told FSSA that using the ICES data for that purpose was inappropriate and not permitted, the wording of a subsequent change request suggested that FSSA had indeed granted Affiliated Computer Services permission to use the data to screen job applicants.

The second change request, dated Sept. 9, includes this description: "Reverse the permission granted by the State ... that allowed the Coalition to access ICES for information pertaining to potential employees."

However, Affiliated Computer Services executive Alan Jolly, in a letter that FSSA provided to Holden, said the company never used ICES to screen job applicants. Jolly is vice president of the Indiana Eligibility Project for ACS Human Services LLC.

FSSA spokesman Marcus Barlow said that despite the wording in the second change request, the state agency never gave Affiliated Computer Services permission to use ICES data that way.

"It never actually happened," he said. "There were never any invasions of privacy."

The contract requires IBM, ACS and their partners to follow privacy laws, Barlow said. If there's any suspicion that the vendors have used the data for purposes other than determining eligibility for benefits, FSSA investigates the matter. Barlow did not know whether any such investigations have occurred.

Cate, the IU privacy expert, said laws provide little protection to people who provide personal information to government agencies.

Governments routinely sell that information, but it usually involves public documents, such as land deeds.

Cate also said that once a private company gets people's personal information from the government, there's little if anything to stop it from sharing the data further, for instance, with a customer or a partner.

"Those subsequent uses may be so far afield from the intended use that you start to worry about, are the data appropriate for their new use?" he said.

Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, which lobbies for open and accountable government, said welfare recipients could be unfairly excluded from jobs if the ICES data were outdated.

"It's one thing to have a mechanism to ferret out dishonest employees, but it would seem to be a less than useful tool," Vaughn said of the ICES data. "There's a basic expectation of privacy that could be breached in this case."

Related stories:

Advocates say Indiana welfare revamp needs overhaul

FSSA chief admits to privatized welfare problems

(Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This story may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.)

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