Getting followed on social media could soon have a new meaning for those looking to apply for Social Security disability benefits.
As of Spring 2019, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has started to screen social media accounts when evaluating eligibility to receive Social Security disability. The inspiration comes from critics of the SSA looking to crack down on alleged fraud and abuse.
Currently, the SSA uses social media to investigate fraud cases but they may be looking to expand their usage of the social platforms. In 2014, the SSA’s investigation office used social media to help arrest over 100 people who had defrauded the SSDI out of millions of dollars. Investigators found photos of the disability claimants riding jet skis, performing physical stunts, and driving motorcycles on their personal social media pages.
However, the use of social media by an official government agency when determining eligibility raises some questions about privacy and how to establish boundaries with what information lives online.
The Proposed Plan
The SSA included a proposal to experiment with increasing the use of social media in disability determinations as a way to “increase program integrity and expedite the identification of fraud” within their budget request to Congress last year. Administration officials have confirmed that the White House has been actively working with the SSA under the belief that social media could be a valuable tool for finding information on those that are applying for Social Security disability benefits.
The plan could deny someone from receiving benefits if their social media indicates that they have the ability to work. For example, if someone claims that they have a back injury that prevents them from working and then posts a photo of them playing golf on social media, the post could be used as evidence that the injury is not disabling.
The largest criticism for the proposed use of social media by the SSA is that it can be difficult to determine when a photo was taken. If someone posted a photo of them golfing in 2019 does not necessarily mean that the photo was taken in 2019. Moreover, people are more likely to post photos of themselves when they are active and happy than when they are in a wheelchair or hospital bed.
Although the SSA hasn’t yet produced a detailed outline on how it may use social media in screening applicants, the proposal has raised data privacy concerns. Unless the agency plans to partner with social media companies for back-end user data, it’s difficult to determine how information found on social media can be confirmed to be reliable. Social media accounts aren’t tied to Social Security numbers and many users set their profiles to private to prevent strangers from viewing them.
The Current Dynamic of Social Security Disability
Currently, more than 10 million people receive Social Security disability benefits totaling more than $11 billion each month. Beneficiaries have paid into the system through payroll taxes. Few would say that the Social Security disability program is free from fraud. There have been numerous guilty pleas from those that were working while receiving Social Security benefits. The SSA estimated that it made $3.4 billion in overpayments in 2017 alone due to recipients’ failure to report work activities.
As of now, the SSA does not routinely check social media when evaluating a claim for Social Security disability. At most, suspicious cases are referred to a general inspector who may look at social media for additional information when collaborating with state and local law enforcement agencies.
Further Criticism of the Use of Social Media by the SSA
While routinely checking social media may be a valuable tool in preventing fraud, the added step could further delay the application process. The proposal has also been criticized as starting with “the discriminatory assumption that people with disabilities do nothing socially in the community, or have lives, so that anything a person does on social media can be classified as some form of fraud,” said Eric Buehlmann, deputy executive director of public policy at the National Disability Rights Network, a nonprofit membership advocacy group.
The prospect of government surveillance has always been controversial. Some have argued that after workers and employers split a 1.8% payroll tax to fund the program, they are met with the SSA’s ability to check their Facebook profiles.
Furthermore, program statistics do not support the allegation that the SSDI is riddled with fraud. The SSA data shows that the overpayment for all of its programs was under 1% of total benefit payouts for the last three years. With a proposal that seems to be justified under the basis of controlling fraud, there may not be many cases of fraud to fight.
A final rule regarding the use of social media by the SSA is expected to be published in the spring of 2020.