By Edwin Osorio 2nd Vice President
Back in 1951 the famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, his answer was simple, uncontrived, and to the point: Because that’s where the money is. Today, you don’t have to physically rob a bank to pilfer the life savings of unsuspecting Americans. Technology has evolved significantly and the quickest way for those with nefarious intentions to steal our money is to take possession of our Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Unlike having our life savings potentially stolen, PII in the wrong hands represents the potential thievery of our future net worth as well. Protecting PII is a paramount interest of the American public and The Social Security Administration (SSA) has devoted enormous resources to protecting the PII of the American public. This means that vital information such as: social security numbers, dates of birth, and mother’s maiden names can only be used by SSA in order to provide the American public with the benefits they are entitled to while enforcing strict sanctions for any improper use.
In order to ensure the proper handling of PII, SSA goes to great lengths to protect the integrity of its systems that includes ongoing training for all employees; employees must certify continuously and acknowledge their understanding that inappropriate use will result in disciplinary action up to termination and potential criminal charges. However despite the many safeguards SSA has implemented into the SSA ecosystem, they can only be as effective as its weakest vulnerabilities. If these safeguards are not applied across the board indiscriminately, PII is sure to be compromised. Paradoxically, the painstaking lengths the agency goes through to protect the privacy of the American public does not manifest itself in equal protection of PII with contracted employees and other office visitors.
Contracted workers are hired by SSA to perform security, cleaning, maintenance, etc. Even though these contracted employees do receive initial background checks, they along with visitors to SSA offices such as contracted repair personnel and parcel delivery agents never receive any training and are not given any deterrence from observing PII, or subsequent consequences for abuse. Moreover, these contracted employees and office visitors are often unattended and have unfettered access to the offices where PII is ubiquitous and in plain sight. This agency negligence exposes PII with regularity and creates a vulnerability that is immense in scope and injurious to the American public. This lack of thoroughness on the part of the agency is baffling because of the voluminous policies safeguarding PII and the pervasive attention given to training bargaining unit employees (BUE), when juxtaposed to contracted employees and visitors defies logic.
The old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” is easily applicable here. The agency’s failure to protect PII from potential corruption from contracted workers and other visitors is not due to its lack of resolve, as much as it is the inherent culture of anticipating the worst of its BUE while believing in the virtue of others. The BUE have routinely endured onerous impositions by the agency by way of continuously extracting more from them while simultaneously sublimating them from their civic identity. This is an inconsistent position considering how well trained the BUE are, which culminates in an adjudicatory responsibility which is commensurate. The answer has been right in front of SSA this whole time since 2013.
The advent of telework is nothing more than the logical progression into the 21st Century for SSA. The BUE are fully capable and prepared for doing the entire range of workloads at home as easily as they can in the office. The agency would no longer have to address its inability to protect PII from contracted workers and other visitors because with the BUE working at home, the agency could reduce its physical footprint, thus atrophying the use of contracted workers—the extrinsic cost savings would be immeasurable. Furthermore, a BUE would never be in a better position to protect PII than at home. The most common loss of PII is the accidental mishandling of confidential documents, comingling them with other documents and giving them to the wrong person. The BUE will no longer be sharing physical resources such as printers, copiers, and fax machines while teleworking. This represents a reduction in PII loss that cannot be duplicated with any of the existing agency policies and procedures. The BUE are expertly trained at protecting PII and the agency should get out of the way and allow the BUE to do their job as trained. This is only one of a litany of benefits the agency achieves by implementing telework on a permanent basis. Ultimately, productivity is maximized, employees are progressively motivated to perform at a higher level of productivity, accidental PII loss is mitigated to a virtual extinction, and only personnel entitled to have access to PII have it.