NIST Launches Collaborative Research Effort on Digital Identity

The collaboration will rely on NIST’s established process of extensive community engagement to gather input from a variety of voices, including federal partners, state benefit program administrators, state IT and cybersecurity leaders, digital identity experts, technologists, advocates, and those with direct experience navigating the U.S. public benefit landscape. In this way it will leverage expertise in public benefits policy and delivery, including contemporary practices and community resources related to the use of data, design, and technology to administer and deliver services.

(NIST: Gaithersburg, MD) — The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has launched a collaborative project to adapt NIST’s digital identity guidelines to support public benefits programs such as those designed to help beneficiaries pay for food, housing, medical, and other basic living expenses.

“It’s essential that identity management solutions are developed carefully and with a focus on equity, privacy and security,” says president and CEO Alexandra Reeve Givens of the Center for Democracy & Technology. “People should be able to access public benefits programs without facing unfair technical barriers or compromising their privacy. And they need to be able to trust that agencies’ systems will work effectively, fairly, and securely. CDT is excited to work with two national leaders in NIST and the Digital Benefits Network at the Beeck Center to help agencies build solutions that serve all their constituents, especially the most vulnerable.”

Sign up to be kept informed of upcoming events through the Beeck Center website.

The result will be voluntary resources for public sector organizations that administer public benefits, including a profile of NIST’s Digital Identity Guidelines (Special Publication 800-63) that will help practitioners and public sector leaders evaluate what degree of authentication and types of identity proofing practices are needed for delivery of their specific benefits.

“To improve benefits delivery to the U.S. public, it is vital that agencies balance access and security,” says Undersecretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST director Laurie E. Locascio. “Different populations have different needs, barriers, and circumstances that must be considered, and this collaboration will bring together a diverse set of communities to do just that.”

NIST, DBN, and CDT will host public workshops and working sessions to encourage community dialogue, gather input, and foster a deeper understanding of the applicability of digital identity risk management in the public benefits ecosystem.

In response to heightened fraud and related cybersecurity threats during the Covid-19 pandemic, some benefits-administering agencies began integrating 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 affect 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

“As we at the Beeck Center work to identify and establish human-centered solutions that help government services work better for everyone, especially the most vulnerable and underserved populations, we are proud to partner with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Center for Democracy and Technology on this project,” says Beeck Center executive director Lynn Overmann. “By empowering state agencies with stronger implementation resources, it has the potential to increase security and privacy in benefits applications and systems while also making the process more equitable for applicants and beneficiaries.”

Through a cooperative research and development agreement, NIST will work with the Digital Benefits Network (DBN) at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation and the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) to develop resources that help providers balance security, privacy, equity, and usability.

Learn more about the overall project on the NIST website.