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World Briefs II

Privacy Advocates Raise Alarm About Social Security's Web Site

The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Social Security Administration has made it easier for you to get your own financial information - straight off of the Internet!

But privacy advocates say there's a problem: just about anyone else can, too. All that's needed is a person's name, Social Security Number, mother's maiden name, date and place of birth - information that is not that hard to get.

The SSA began offering the new feature last month on its site on the World Wide Web. The system was designed to give consumers easy access to their own "Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimates Statement," the amount of benefits taxpayers may receive, as well as earnings records going back decades. It's the kind of data many consumers want for retirement planning and the like, but in the past consumers had to go to the local Social Security office to get it.

SSA officials Monday insisted that they were abiding by high standards of consumer protection. "Security and privacy have always been a big priority at the agency," said spokesman Phil Gambino. "We think we've built in safeguards to make it a secure system."

Penalties for abusing the database are stiff. Gambino said that the system keeps track of users, and that any abuse that's detected will be punished with up to 10 years in jail and a fine of $10,000 for every offense. But the Internet is available anonymously from within corporate networks and cyber-cafes or from Web sites that strip away identifying information, and Gambino could not say whether the tracking mechanisms could be defeated in that way.

Aspects of the service have been around since last year, when the agency allowed people to order their benefits statement from the agency Web site (http://www.ssa.gov) to be mailed. About 95,000 people took advantage of that program. Last month, the agency took the process a step farther and made the records instantly available at the Internet site to anyone who typed in the required information.

DNA Used to Identify Crash Victims

The Washington Post

A toothbrush left at home by one victim of the crash of TWA Flight 800 and a piece of underclothing left behind by another - both bearing bits of genetic material from their owners - have led to the identification of two bodies retrieved from that crash.

The work may be the first time that DNA from personal effects has been used to identify disaster victims, and shows the increasing usefulness of DNA "fingerprinting" in forensic medicine, said Jack Ballantyne, the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory investigator who supervised the analysis. Ballantyne describes some of the TWA work in a commentary appearing in the April issue of Nature Genetics.

Dental records remain the primary tool for identifying disaster victims, in part because comparisons can be completed in hours while DNA testing can take days or weeks. But dental records are sometimes unavailable - as in last year's crash of a plane carrying 141 Russians and Ukrainians, described by Norwegian researchers in the same journal issue. And dismemberment can leave body parts separated from teeth, as in the TWA crash.

DNA tests can identify victims or body parts with a high level of certainty when DNA is also available from close relatives. Results are even more certain when the victim's own DNA is available.