Twenty years ago Social Security published its policy regarding delivery of electronic service. See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-10p.
Such services must adhere to accepted industry standards and meet social security’s privacy, security, fraud detection, and authentication standards.
Traditional paper-based communications with handwritten signatures provide three basic security characteristics: message integrity, originator authentication, and non-repudiation. The additional security characteristic of confidentiality may also be desirable depending on the nature of the communication.
Message integrity assures that the content of the communication is complete and has not been changed prior to its receipt.
Originator authentication ensures that the communication originated with the named source. This is most commonly achieved with the source’s handwritten signature, or historically, with the author’s seal.
Non-repudiation is a stronger form of authentication which relates to the ability of a disinterested third party to reasonably conclude that the originating party intended to be bound by the content of the communication. This is commonly achieved with an original autograph affixed to a document with facially adequate message integrity.
Confidentiality is the ability to limit access to the contents of a communication. This has commonly been accomplished with some combination of the use of envelopes, seals, trusted messengers, codes and ciphers, and security markings.
In sum, social security allows for suitable electronic service delivery technologies which provide a sufficient level of security and reliability, in order to serve as a substitute for handwritten communications.
Modern social security policy makes electronic collection and distribution of information the functional equivalent of handwritten collection and distribution of information.
This policy also provides for the use of electronic signatures which, under specified conditions, serve as the functional equivalent of handwritten signatures.
Electronic services delivery (ESD) also oxygenates us by means of tree-saving paper reduction. Individuals over age 30 may remember receiving an annual green-and-white paper statement from social security, showing estimated retirement benefit amounts at certain ages — such as 62, 66 or 67, and 70 — as well as an estimated benefit amount in the event of a total disability. The information on these erstwhile statements can now be found online by opening a personal account on social security’s website.
This material should not be construed as legal advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney should be contacted.