New Dataset: Digital Authentication and Identity Proofing in Public Benefits Applications
On February 28, 2023, the Digital Benefits Network published an open dataset documenting authentication and identity proofing requirements across online unemployment insurance (UI) applications in the 53 states and territories that administer the program. Today, we are excited to release similar data for online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), Medicaid, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), child care (CCAP), and unemployment insurance (UI) applications, following a data sharing and data collection collaboration with Code for America as part of their Benefits Enrollment Field Guide project. Users can now find detailed data about authentication and identity proofing practices across each of the six programs on the Digital Benefits Hub. We are publishing this data openly and publicly at this stage of our research to share knowledge and also to solicit feedback and engagement from various stakeholders.
Key findings across programs
In our review of 158 online applications across these six programs, we found:
- A majority of applications across programs (75%) require applicants to login or create an account to start an application.
- We found evidence that more than 80% of online application processes that require or allow users to create an account also incorporate additional authentication measures such as security questions, email validation links, and one-time authentication codes, among other measures.
- Across programs, a small number of applications (31) are using state or city-wide single sign-on services (SSOs) that enable applicants to use the same login for other government services.
- About a third of applications across programs require or prompt some type of active identity proofing actions as part of an online application process.
- The use of identity proofing varies across programs, both in terms of commonality and methods.
- Identity proofing requirements were most common in unemployment insurance online applications.
- Just under half of unemployment insurance applications use biometric verification for identity proofing, but we did not find any uses of biometrics for identity proofing in other safety net program applications.
Outside of UI applications, many of the applications we reviewed for SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, WIC, and CCAP are combined or integrated applications that allow users to apply for more than one program at a time. The data we captured represents applicant experiences when applying to all benefits available on a single application flow at once such as MAGI Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF. You can read more about our findings and research process on the Digital Benefits Hub, where you can also view program-specific summaries of our findings.
The Impact of Login and Identity Proofing on Benefits Access
When we launched our digital identity research agenda in December, 2022 we knew it would be essential to get a comprehensive, up-to-date understanding of the identity proofing and authentication requirements that benefits seekers may encounter. Our interest in this project – and the basis of our research on this and digital identity in general– is driven by our concern about online application requirements and implementations of identity proofing that create additional burdens for applicants. We are concerned that these processes and technologies may potentially block benefits seekers from applying for or receiving benefits, duplicate processes across programs, and raise challenging issues around privacy and data security. We are also concerned that the advocacy around recent technology implementations has been an all-or-nothing approach to remove a type of technology, rather than supporting government practitioners in navigating solutions that make these processes secure while producing equitable outcomes.
We know through our work that agencies that administer public benefits applications online continually balance multiple potentially conflicting priorities around privacy, fraud prevention, and accessibility to ensure equitable outcomes. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Code for America have previously suggested that removing login and identity proofing requirements may improve access to benefits programs. As was made clear during the pandemic, the design and implementation of online benefits applications and identity proofing approaches can impact an applicant’s ability to access essential benefits. Reports of applicants getting stuck in various digital queues and or blocked by new processes were rampant when people needed the help most.
Since launching our research agenda, we have also published a guide to U.S. government actions on digital identity at the federal level. This work summarizes and synthesizes the disparate activities that can shape the future of digital identity in the U.S. Within the public benefits ecosystem, we see authentication and identity proofing as part of the overall service design of benefits delivery. For example, as part of an overall service design process, we believe that state agencies should consider whether identity proofing is necessary, and, if it is, where it should be placed so it does not create undue barriers for applicants. Going forward, we are eager to continue working closely with state agencies and other partners to help agency leaders navigate tradeoffs in different approaches, map out key decision points around digital identity in public benefits, and promote best practices for privacy, fraud prevention, and accessibility.
Research Questions and Goals
When collecting data about identity proofing and authentication requirements across benefits applications, we sought to answer several questions, including:
- When and how do applicants need to create a log-in to apply for benefits online?
- What kinds of personally identifiable information (PII) are applicants required or requested to share when applying online?
- When and how are front-end identity proofing steps incorporated into application processes?
- What identity proofing methods are applicants asked to use?
To answer these questions, we consulted publicly available information about UI applications from agency websites, application portals, claimant guides, news coverage, vendor websites, and contracting repositories. We established a data sharing agreement and data collection partnership with Code for America to support their Benefits Enrollment Field Guide and facilitate our data collection on authentication and identity proofing in online SNAP, WIC, TANF, MAGI Medicaid, and CCAP.
By building and releasing this dataset publicly, we hope to:
- Create an easy to consult and readily updatable resource that documents the landscape of authentication and identity proofing practices unemployment benefits seekers may encounter.
- Make it easier for state and territorial agencies, advocates, technology implementers, and federal agencies to see and understand what others in the field are doing.
- Expand our own knowledge and understanding of the varied approaches to login and identity proofing across labor agencies.
Feedback and Engagement
We are publishing this dataset openly and publicly at this stage of our research to share knowledge and solicit feedback and engagement from various stakeholders. We hope that people who access and work with the dataset will help ensure the accuracy of the data, fill in any gaps that they find, conduct their own analysis, and share ideas for further extensions of this work.
This data represents a moment in time. We also know that the information we accessed during this project may not reflect the most up-to-date experiences of claimants. We also know that application requirements and processes can be complex.
To submit general or specific feedback about an application included in the dataset, you can use our designated feedback form.
We are grateful for the feedback and input we have already received from members of the Unemployment Insurance Technology Coordinating Coalition and others working on improvements to core safety net programs. We are eager to continue receiving additional feedback.
We view this dataset as one step in our digital identity research agenda – one that will help us direct further research and continued engagement with state and territorial agencies, technology implementers, and others in the ecosystem over the coming months. We encourage you to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about our data or ideas for expanding this research. To receive updates about our work, we invite you to subscribe to the Digital Benefits Network.
- A special thanks to our colleagues at Code for America for the data sharing partnership that facilitated the development of these datasets, and for inviting us to support work on their Benefits Enrollment Field Guide.
- We would also like to thank Jeremy Ney and Stephanie Motta from American Inequality for creating the data visualizations that helped illustrate our learnings from this research in new ways.
- Finally, we would like to thank the partner organizations and state agencies that spoke with us about their work, both formally and informally.