Collaborative Research on Digital Identity in Public Benefits Delivery

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Digital Benefits Network (DBN) at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) are collaborating on a two-year-long collaborative research and development project to adapt NIST’s digital identity guidelines to better support the implementation of public benefits policy and delivery while balancing security, privacy, equity, and usability.

NIST, DBN, and CDT will carry out a robust community engagement to develop voluntary resources that reflect input from a variety of voices – including federal partners, state benefit program administrators, state IT and cybersecurity leaders, digital identity experts, technologists, advocates, and beneficiaries and others with direct experience navigating the U.S. public benefit landscape. This collaboration will produce a voluntary community profile of NIST’s Digital Identity Guidelines (Special Publication 800-63). This profile will support and empower practitioners and public sector leaders in evaluating the necessity and level of authentication and identity proofing practices in specific benefits delivery scenarios.

Through a process of public engagement beginning in summer 2024, the team will finalize which public benefits program and delivery contexts will be addressed in the profile.

The Challenge 

In response to heightened fraud and related cybersecurity threats during the COVID-19 pandemic, some benefits-administering agencies began to integrate new safeguards such as individual digital accounts and identity verification, also known as identity proofing, into online applications. However, the use of certain approaches, like those reliant upon facial recognition or data brokers, has raised questions about privacy and data security, due process issues, and potential biases in systems that disproportionately impact communities of color and marginalized groups. Simultaneously, adoption of more effective, evidence-based methods of identity verification has lagged, despite recommendations from NIST (Question A4) and the Government Accountability Office

State benefits-administering agencies face significant challenges protecting beneficiary information and ensuring the integrity of their programs. Appropriately balancing access and security, while taking into account nuanced program circumstances and populations, is vital to meaningfully improving public benefits policy and delivery.

Additional Resources


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