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Database Error Costs Social Security Victims $500M 299

Hugh Pickens writes "The Washington Posts reports that the Social Security Administration has agreed to pay more than $500 million in back benefits to more than 80,000 recipients whose benefits were unfairly denied after they were flagged by a federal computer program designed to catch serious criminals. At issue is a 1996 law, which contained language later nicknamed the 'fleeing felon' provision, that said fugitives were ineligible to receive federal benefits. As part of its enforcement, the administration began searching computer databases to weed out people who were collecting benefits and had outstanding warrants. The searches captured dozens of criminals, including some wanted for homicide, but they also ensnared countless elderly and disabled people accused of relatively minor offenses such as shoplifting or writing bad checks and in some cases, the victims simply shared a name and a birth date with an offender." (Read more, below.)
"The lead plaintiff in the class-action suit, Rosa Martinez, 52, of Redwood City, Calif., was cut off from her $870 monthly disability benefit check in January 2008 because the system had flagged an outstanding drug warrant in 1980 for a different Rosa Martinez from Miami. Officials said it is difficult to estimate how many social security recipients might be affected by the agreement but said the number is fewer than 1 percent nationally. 'What's remarkable about this case is thesheer number of individuals who were unfairly denied benefits and the size of the financial settlement they will receive,' said David H. Fry of Munger, Tolles & Olson, one of the pro bono attorneys who represented victims."
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Database Error Costs Social Security Victims $500M

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  • by abshack ( 1389985 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:22PM (#29044147)
    This is human error. When will people learn not to make peoples' name the primary key... :/
  • How on earth... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Omega Hacker ( 6676 ) <omega.omegacs@net> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:23PM (#29044165)
    Let me get this straight: we're talking about the Social Security Administration, who is responsible for assigning every citizen a unique number which is then used to pay out benefits, and is also used by everybody's dog to act as a unique ID, presumably including the criminal justice system. The very same people who *dole out* these numbers can't be bothered to use them to cross-check whether somebody should stop getting benefits because of this law???
  • by NotBornYesterday ( 1093817 ) * on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:23PM (#29044169) Journal

    ... in some cases, the victims simply shared a name and a birth date with an offender.

    But I imagine they do not, with the exception of ID fraud, share a Social Security number?

  • by hellfire ( 86129 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [vdalived]> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:46PM (#29044373) Homepage

    Okay, you geeks all confuse me. First you say that by law no one should be using the SSN as a unique identifier except for the SSA itself. Then you ask why aren't people using this unique number to avoid mistakes!!!

    I don't blame the SS because they were doing what they were told to do, cut off what someone defined as criminals. The problem was the definition, and how to link SS roles with all these outstanding warrants and whatnot. Are we sure the criminal records all have SSNs? Or could it be that we did a join on some other column and hoped for the best and thought 98% was good enough? I can see a programmer being forced to do the latter by a stupid law. How many John Smiths without proper social security numbers were in the dataset they had to work with?

    This was a stupid law to begin with, and probably had some stupid premises to get the information linked up. Never allow a politician to act like a project manager, they'll never get it right.

  • by chrb ( 1083577 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:47PM (#29044379)

    The problem was not the choice of primary key. The problem was the way in which the people in charge of the process failed to consider the possibility of false positives.

    more than 80,000 recipients whose benefits were unfairly denied... The searches captured dozens of criminals

    "dozens?" Let's be generous and say 50. 50 out of 80,000 is a 99.9% rate of false positives. Not good.

  • Unique Enough? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gknoy ( 899301 ) <<moc.smetsysizasana> <ta> <yonkg>> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:49PM (#29044407)

    "Unique Enough" isn't.

  • Re:How on earth... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by greed ( 112493 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:50PM (#29044421)

    The thing about UNIVERSAL public health care is...

    It's actually not very important if you correctly identify who is getting health care.

    Your doctor needs to know who you are, and lab results need to be correctly tied to samples, and so on. But that's not a function of who's paying the bills.

    But for determining if the doctors and labs get paid? Not so much.

    Basically, all you really need to know is, "is this person a citizen or lawful immigrant?" and "is this procedure covered by the system?". It's not so important to know WHICH citizen or lawful immigrant. It's nice to get it right, but your medical history doesn't need to be part of your public health insurance ID, so it's not critical to treatment.

    Different keying problem.

    That being said... I'm amazed at how many people think there's some huge government conspiracy out to get them when they can't get simple stuff like this right. Sure, they can listen in on all cell phone calls... but they can't keep a list properly?

  • by jackspenn ( 682188 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @05:58PM (#29044507)
    One would think the SSN could serve as a unique identifier.

    And our non-representative representatives in Congress wonder why so many people don't trust them to run the healthcare system.

    I can see it now

    We're sorry Matt Hew Johnson, we accidentally removed your leg as per operation instructions intended for Matthew Johnson down the hall. Now I know you think you got the bad end of the deal. I mean you loosing your leg and him getting the heart transplant you expected, but before you start complaining, recognize, you are B+ and he is type A-. Poor bastard will be lucky if he makes it through the night, which means your likely to get double breakfast tomorrow courtesy of Uncle Sammy. That should cheer you up, gimpy. Well, I would love to stay and chat, but union regs say I get to take a 30 minute break every half hour.
  • Re:How on earth... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:01PM (#29044547)


    Yes, let's.

    On the one hand, are you under some delusion that your health insurance company is somehow doing a better job? With greater reliability, efficiency, and accountability? Fewer errors, fewer denied valid claims?? Do you just take it on faith, or do you have any evidence at all that your insurance company is doing a better job?

  • Re:How on earth... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:06PM (#29044603)

    Warrants don't typically contain SSNs. I know because I spent 4 years working for SSA and explaining that very fact to the little old lady who was presumably wanted.

  • No no... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:23PM (#29044793)

    Using an SSN for *identification* of persons (like to distinguish between 10 John Smith's in a database) is perfectly fine. That's the whole point of the SSN. (They arent necessarily unique, so they might not be suitable as a master key, but whatever.)

    Using the SSN for *authentication* (to prove that the person really is who they say they are) is the problem. SSNs are publically available, they are totally unsuitable for authenticating people with. Unfortunately, they get used for that too, and thats why identity theft is so easy with them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:36PM (#29044985)

    and completely screw up every system designed to make sure that a social security number is nine digits, not nine alpha numerics.

  • Re:Do away with it (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:54PM (#29045215)

    We wouldn't have these problems if they simply did away with Social Security entirely. It was never meant to be a retirement plan for every citizen.

    Quite true. The pension that would be paid by the employer that you worked for your whole life for was supposed to take care of that. (Actually, IIRC the rhetoric of the time was that a retiree would be supported by three legs: pension, savings, and social security.) It's a good thing employers still have generous pensions for their workers.

  • Re:How on earth... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rho ( 6063 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:58PM (#29045259) Homepage Journal

    If I had a real point, that would have been one of them. Single-payer proponents all point to a lot of other governments to say how great it is. It's harder to make the case that the U.S. government can do as well. For example, Medicare is enduring severe cost overruns and is rife with corruption.

    Nobody ever talks about how great the U.S. government would be. They always say "it's working great in Australia!" Which can be perfectly true, but irrelevant, unless we adopt the Australian system, every jot and tittle--or hire Australia to run our health care system as well.

  • Re:How on earth... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rho ( 6063 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @07:01PM (#29045297) Homepage Journal

    The only assumption I made was that the parent poster has zero data whatsoever that would demonstrate that the people currently running health care aren't making worse mistakes / decisions.

    That was a pretty poor assumption, since I never insinuated any such thing. The point began and ended with noting that the U.S. federal government is well-known for its gaffes, and that they're never referenced in any debate on health reform.

    I don't know why you took such a simple idea and ran for the hills with it, but I bet it annoys people around you.

  • by scot4875 ( 542869 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @07:04PM (#29045311) Homepage

    Has the healthcare "protesting" spilled into other discussions now? This is the second post already that I've read that's completely offtopic. Are you being encouraged to shout down *everyone*?

    Also, to respond directly to your post, how is your scenario of mistaking "Matt Hew Johnson" with "Matthew Johnson" in adjacent rooms relevant to anything?

    It sure would be great to hear a logical argument against government healthcare that couldn't be countered with, "but how is that any different than what we already have?" But instead, all we get to hear about is government incompetence and SOCIALISM!!!!


  • Re:How on earth... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @07:19PM (#29045451) Homepage

    Pretty sure I'll still like money then too. :)

  • by StikyPad ( 445176 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @07:27PM (#29045541) Homepage

    You know, military healthcare in general gets a lot of negative attention, but it's still better than any private program I've ever had. The idea of "death boards" is absolutely ridiculous -- the military will do anything in its power to treat someone, even if it means flying them halfway across the globe. And there's certainly no higher incidence of incompetence in military providers than in the civilian sector, especially when you consider that many military medical personnel moonlight at local clinics and hospitals.

    Choosing between a few days of bedrest in a hospital with some peeling paint, making years of payments to cover my deductible/spending cap, or filing for bankruptcy, and in either case possibly losing my coverage and the ability to get new insurance, I'd pick the former. With insurance companies competing based on who can deny the most coverage, and most people unable to even chose their insurers in the first place (in any meaningful way), the state of healthcare in the US has nowhere to go but up.

  • by DustoneGT ( 969310 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @07:37PM (#29045643)
    the people who are forced to pay into the unsustainable scheme?
  • by avxo ( 861854 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @07:46PM (#29045737)
    Except that's not reuse. An EIN is not a social security number. Repeat after me, an EIN is not a social security number! Just because your telephone number is 666-555-1212 and my driver's license number is 666-55-1211 doesn't mean the DMV is reusing telephone numbers as driver's license numbers.
  • by psiphiorg ( 566033 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @07:54PM (#29045835) Homepage Journal

    when a 1500 page bill lands on a congresscritter's desk 2-3 days before the vote, what do you expect?

    I expect them to vote "No", on the grounds that they don't know whether it's a good bill or not. Sure, whoever gave them the document said it was a good bill, but a Congressman should know better than to trust another Congressman.


  • by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @08:15PM (#29046005)

    The issue is to 'identify criminals', they have to do a fuzzy search through records that may have innacuracies or transcription errors and don't have a primary key that corresponds to the SSA's primary key. E.g. Name and birthdate may be the only fields they can really search.

    In their statistical ignorance and lack of understanding of the birthday paradox [efgh.com], they think same name + same birthday == same persion is infallible logic.

    Instead of treating a match as an indication that they should perform further investigation, it gets treated as absolute proof. E.g. Mistakenly treating fallible data as infallible; drawing conclusions that the search result itself is not necessarily adequate to make reasonable.

    And therefore, should their search turn up any records, they deny benefits, and will not listen to any disputes, due to infallible logic of the computer: How dare you question the computer? I can imagine the SSA worker telling the upset person at the window.

    I think the Social Security Administration's primary key is called a social security number; either that, or the SSN's just a unique identifier that should have nearly a 1:1 relationship with whatever internal numerical identifier they choose as PK.

    But when a court convicts X person, they can't assign a primary key that the SSA can rely upon getting from you.

    They could ask for SSN number... but the SSN number itself isn't guaranteed to be unique, and they may still make some errors.

    The criminal could have lied about their SSN, or the record may have only contained some portion of it (such as the last 3 or 4 digits)

  • by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @08:24PM (#29046083)

    Yes, but when a 1500 page bill lands on a congresscritter's desk 2-3 days before the vote, what do you expect?

    As someone else replied, I expect them to vote against that 1500 (or 500, or 100 or 2) page bill that they haven't had time to read.

  • by jackbird ( 721605 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @08:43PM (#29046249)
    This is why you should be deeply distrustful of government interference in healthcare: they can use your health to put you in a box.

    Isn't that an even better reason to be deeply distrustful of employer and insurance company interference in healthcare?
  • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @10:09PM (#29046809)

    they don't pass information to law enforcement agencies

    Have you contacted your Representative and Senators?

    You might be stuck if they are Democrats kissing La Rasa's ass, but if local Republicans make an issue of it, that might "stimulate" you Congressmen to act out of self-defense.

    I spend untold hours every year correcting entries

    Get a new SSN?

  • Pro bono? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by booch ( 4157 ) * <slashdot2010@cra ... m ['ek.' in gap]> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @10:53PM (#29047073) Homepage

    I think the most shocking part of the story is that the lawyers were working pro bono on a class action case -- especially one this big.

What is algebra, exactly? Is it one of those three-cornered things? -- J.M. Barrie