Social Security & E-Signature Problems
Electronic signature laws during the COVID-19 pandemic are playing a more significant role than ever before. The laws outlining acceptable electronic transaction standards that have the same effect as paper and ink signatures are the state Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) and the federal Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN).
The US Social Security Administration (SSA) is struggling to modernize its IT infrastructure to support the American people's current and future workloads, including e-signature acceptance. There are significant and ever-increasing service requirements and data storage responsibilities. The data includes sensitive information, susceptible to hacking, on nearly every citizen in the US, whether living or deceased, including their medical and financial records. While the SSA encourages agency interaction through their various online services, the truth is the agency's outdated and poorly integrated computer systems make modern methods of e-signature acceptance a problem.
What is an e-signature? It is quite simply a digital file or symbol that attaches to places on an electronic file or contract, guaranteeing a person's intent to sign the file or contract. E-signing has different formats. A signer can type their name into a signature area; they can paste in a scanned version of the signer's signature, click on the "I accept" button, or even employ cryptographic scrambling technology. The security of these e-signatures varies across the formats.
What is a digital signature? This type of signature is considered more sophisticated and secure than the e-signature counterpart. This form of signature uses digital identification to authenticate the signer, which then becomes electronically bound to the document using encryption. Programs such as DocuSign, SignNow, Adobe, and others, offer easy ways to create a digital signature securely.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and four individual plaintiffs are suing the SSA for their refusal to accept electronic signatures. The advent of COVID-19 is precluding many Americans who have compromised immune systems from applying for disability benefits because their existing condition makes them especially vulnerable. The argument is that the safest way for these at-risk individuals to apply is to fill out an online application at home with an e-signature since leaving home or interacting with paper mail presents an avoidable danger.
In the case of Timothy Cole, currently being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he is unable to submit his application for disability benefits because he plans to hire an attorney to help him navigate the complicated application process. Why would hiring an attorney preclude the SSA from accepting an application for disability benefits? Ultimately Mr. Cole is unable to submit his application online because the attorney or other authorized representative must sign a paper copy of their client's application. So even though it is allowable for Mr. Cole to e-sign his application, his attorney may not even though the SSA maintains an online application process where e-signatures are reportedly secure, accessible, and federally approved.
The lawsuit is also seeking that the court order the SSA to permit blind people to fill out their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application online. The SSA explicitly disallows blind people from applying online for this benefit. The lawsuit further asks the court to require e-signature acceptance on paperwork when a current beneficiary is subject to a CDR or continuing disability review.
The president of the National Federation of the Blind Mark Riccobono states, "The Social Security Administration regularly interacts with hundreds of thousands of blind people and other consumers with disabilities. Yet policies like this one persist, although the SSA has both the authority and the capability to accept electronic signatures. It is both unlawful and unconscionable that this agency continues to place blind and disabled consumers at a severe disadvantage, especially during a life-threatening global pandemic. The government should innovate, not discriminate."
Therein lies the disconnect of expected service with the SSA. While consumers are looking for innovation and ease of use, the SSA's continued dependence on outdated technology creates a focus on the behemoth project to migrate to a relational database that can allow for hardware alternatives with greater performance and interoperability at a much lower cost. Beyond these hardware infrastructure updates, data modernization and consolidation, and application modernization must also experience updates to be user friendly. Until these updates are in place, the SSA can expect to contend with more lawsuits as e-signatures become a need rather than a want during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you have questions or would like to discuss your particular situation, please don’t hesitate to reach out. And if you are outside of our service area, please contact an experienced Elder Law Attorney (preferably one that is Board Certified in Elder Law) to assist you.
Jason A. Penrod is only the 20th attorney to be Board Certified as an Elder Law Expert by the Florida Bar and the National Elder Law Foundation. He is the founder of Family Elder Law (www.familyelderlaw.com) which has offices in Lakeland, Lake Wales, and Sebring, Florida.