Contract may lead to SSA bringing back controversial online program

The Social Security Administration has signed on to a governmentwide digital certificates contract that may lead to the resurrection of a controversial online program that allowed Americans to access their Social Security information over the Internet, the General Services Administration announced today at a pre-proposal conference.

SSA issued a letter of intent to GSA's Office of Information Security, which oversees the Access Certificates for Electronic Services (ACES) contract, which is under development and viewed as a key component to building an infrastructure for an electronic government. SSA intends to use ACES digital certificates for several programs, including the Personal Earnings Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES) system, according to Judith Spencer, director of the Center for Governmentwide Security at GSA.

In 1997 SSA introduced PEBES, an Internet-based system that allowed Americans to view their earnings history and Social Security benefits information on the SSA's World Wide Web site. SSA was forced to take the application off its Web site in 1997 after Congress criticized how easy it was for someone to access someone else's account with just some basic information about the individual.

ACES is intended to provide a commercial-off-the-shelf solution to form part of the public-key infrastructure for electronic government. The digital certificates will verify the identity of people conducting electronic business with the federal government. "ACES represents the service delivery to put those policies in place," said David Temoshok, the team leader for Access America at the GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy's Electronic Commerce program.

Two other agencies—the Treasury Department and GSA—issued letters of intent to use the contract. Their commitment represents a major piece missing from previous requests for proposals for ACES. GSA canceled previous RFPs after vendors opposed them because agencies were not interested. Vendors also complained about technical problems.

Even with the agencies' assurances, vendors still complain that ACES' requirements are almost impossible to fulfill. The scale and structure GSA has envisioned for ACES is something that has never been tried before in either the federal or commercial arenas, and enough vendor concerns were raised at the conference that the proposal deadline may have to be moved back from Feb. 19 to answer them all, said ACES contracting officer Melanie Lewis.

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