On National STEM Day, Combatting Sexual Harassment in STEM Research

Research in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) plays a critical role in enhancing the nation’s competitiveness. Here on the WatchBlog, we’ve explored the federal government’s role in supporting STEM education, diversifying the pipeline of STEM talent, and increasing women’s access to federal funding for STEM.

Today on National STEM Day, we discuss federal efforts to combat a threat to the integrity and fairness of STEM research: sexual harassment.

The impact of sexual harassment

In recent years, prominent STEM researchers have engaged in or been accused of sexual harassment, according to a number of media reports.

Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and other discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities, including STEM research. Sexual harassment is not only illegal and degrading—it also makes it more difficult for women to engage in this field and undermines the quality and fairness of our nation’s research.

How sexual harassment shows up in STEM research

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, female students in engineering and medical majors experience sexual harassment significantly more than female students in non-STEM fields. The most common form of sexual harassment is gender harassment, which generally involves hostility, exclusion, or other discrimination based on a person’s gender, but sexual harassment also includes sexual coercion and unwanted sexual behavior.

There are several factors that can allow sexual harassment to occur:

  • Perceived tolerance for sexual harassment in environments where men outnumber women and leadership is male dominated
  • Environments in which the power structure of an organization is hierarchical with strong dependencies on those at higher levels or in which people are geographically isolated
  • Increased focus on symbolic compliance with Title IX
  • Uninformed leadership on campus

Agency steps to address the problem

GAO’s John Neumann recently testified on our preliminary work examining federal efforts to help prevent sexual harassment by STEM research grantees.

John Neumann testifyingJohn Neumann, Managing Director of GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Team, testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

Our initial observations show that the 5 agencies that provide most of the federal STEM research grant funding have taken steps to strengthen their policies to prevent sexual harassment at universities. In addition, the National Science Foundation has implemented new requirements for universities to report sexual harassment, and officials said the number of complaints and related requests has since increased. The agencies have also taken steps to coordinate with each other to address the culture and climate for women in STEM.

However, all 5 agencies reported challenges in obtaining and sharing information, which may increase the risk of “passing the harasser” — a situation in which a researcher is found to have sexually harassed someone at one university and then gets employment or funding from another university or agency without the university or agency being aware of the researcher’s history.

We did not make any recommendations, but we are continuing our work on this topic. To learn more, read the full testimony.


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Helping Serve Those Who Have Served

Approximately 200,000 servicemembers transition from military service to civilian life each year. Part of the government’s commitment to military members is helping them achieve their education and career goals. This investment in servicemembers continues after they leave the military and includes their families, who are also affected by their loved-one’s transition to the civilian workforce.

For Veterans Day this Monday, as we honor those who have served, we revisit some of our work on federal programs that help ease the return to civilian life.

Many programs, now in one place

Multiple federal agencies provide education and employment assistance to servicemembers, veterans, and their families—both independently and together. This can make navigating the different options difficult. In fact, we found there was no inventory of federal programs that could easily give potential participants a complete picture of available benefits.

We compiled a comprehensive list and found 11 agencies offering 45 programs. A 12th agency also administered a tax exclusion for GI Bill benefits, which allows recipients to exclude these benefits from their taxable income. More than half of these programs served veterans, while others served servicemembers and their families.

Number of Federal Programs Whose Primary Purpose Is to Provide Education, Employment, or Self-Employment Assistance to Servicemembers, Veterans, or Their Families, by Type of Beneficiary Served

Translating military skills to the civilian world

Although servicemembers often learn and master skills during their service, some may have a difficult time finding employment after they leave the military. One contributing factor: it can be difficult to translate skills learned in the military—such as maintaining a ship’s navigational radar—into civilian jobs. To help with this issue, the Department of Defense and the Coast Guard have over 300 employment centers at military installations worldwide.

These centers operate the mandatory Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which provides counseling, employment assistance, and information on veterans’ benefits for separating servicemembers. Other employment and family support services are also available at the centers. The TAP curriculum, which was recently altered for the first time since 2011, now provides

  • Individualized initial counseling between the servicemember and a TAP counselor
  • Pre-separation counseling on benefits, entitlements, and resources
  • DOD-required coursework on financial planning, resiliency, and a crosswalk of military and civilian occupations
  • Briefings on VA benefits and services
  • A required one-day Department of Labor brief on preparing for employment
  • Two days of additional instruction in at least 1 of 4 topics, such as vocational skills or entrepreneurship
  • A capstone event, where commanders verify that servicemembers have achieved career readiness standards and have a viable individual transition plan

Keeping servicemembers informed

A key component of smoothing the transition from military to civilian life is making sure servicemembers are aware of their education and employment support options before they exit the service, so they have the freedom to explore and choose what works for them.

According to servicemembers and DOD staff we interviewed, information about employment and education opportunities is most useful early in the year preceding a servicemembers’ discharge date, as it takes time to craft a strong resume and search for jobs or colleges. However, in 2017, we found that fewer than half of eligible servicemembers completed the required transition workshops 90 days or more before leaving the service.

New TAP requirements established by the FY 2019 John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act now require DOD to ensure servicemembers begin TAP no later than 365 days before they separate or retire from the military. Servicemembers who are retiring are recommended to begin the transition process at least 2 years in advance.

More information on federal programs to help transitioning service members can be found here.


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Digging Deep on the 2020 Census with GAO’s New Podcast Series

Today we’re introducing a new breed of GAO podcast — Watchdog Report: Deep Dig. While our traditional podcast tends to zero in on the bottom line of one of our new reports, Deep Dig will explore broader issues we examine, and bring you stories from the people behind our reports.

Watchdog Deep Dig Podcast Logo

The first episode of Deep Dig is on the 2020 Census — one of our High Risk areas.

The U.S. Census provides vital data for the nation. It’s used to determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and distribute billions of dollars each year in federal financial assistance. But putting together such an enormous, high-stakes operation doesn’t happen overnight. The Census Bureau has been preparing for the event for years. And as part of our longstanding efforts to give near-real time feedback to the Bureau, we’ve been on the ground with census workers observing the process.

Some of our Census experts sat down to talk about how preparations are going, and some of the reasons why the census is so critically important to government operations. Press play to hear what they had to say.

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GAO staff around a table talking about the Census


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Creating Explosives for Nuclear Weapons

Those yellow pebbles pictured on the left? While they might look a lot like Halloween candy, they are far from it. They’re actually formulated explosives the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration uses to create weapons.

In today’s WatchBlog, we discuss our report on how NNSA develops and manages nuclear weapons.

What’s in a nuclear weapon?

Nuclear weapons are often thought about in terms of uranium and plutonium—i.e., the key components in nuclear weapons. However, these weapons also feature over 100 components that use non-nuclear explosive materials, some of them highly specialized and difficult to produce.

NNSA—which is responsible for the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile—plans to modernize nearly all of the nuclear weapons that are currently deployed. And as these weapons are modernized, the explosive components must be replaced.

A precise recipe

Unlike candy, the explosives required by NNSA cannot be purchased by a quick trip to the store or even a quick trip to the lab. The standards for creating these materials are so specific that the process is often called a recipe.

In fact, these materials must meet more exacting standards than explosives found in conventional weapons. The temperature, mixing speed, and container size must all be carefully controlled, and at each step of the production process, NNSA conducts tests to ensure the explosives meet stringent safety and performance requirements.

Challenges to detonation development

We found that NNSA faces several challenges working with these explosive materials. In addition to challenges with reproducing or procuring the explosive materials, NNSA has had difficulty recruiting and training qualified staff, and the agency’s infrastructure is aging and deteriorating.

While these issues are common across the Department of Energy, older infrastructure poses unique challenges when working with material as dangerous as explosives. Common weather conditions such as thunder storms can shut down some operations due to the dangers associated with working with explosives in deteriorating buildings. For instance, the photo below shows expensive testing equipment that must be covered to avoid water damage from a leaky roof.

In all, we made 3 recommendations for improving the management of explosive materials, including data improvements to help address infrastructure issues.

Check out our report to learn more.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Allison Bawden at bawdena@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Our Innovation Lab: Building a Sandbox for Audit Tech

As our world becomes increasingly digitized, being able to quickly make sense of patterns, correlations, and behaviors from huge amounts of data is vital. This is especially true for federal agencies and the audit community.

As Taka Ariga, GAO’s first Chief Data Scientist and Director of the Innovation Lab, rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, his focus will be on transforming the way that GAO thinks about and uses advanced analytical capabilities. With extensive hands-on experience working with audit, legal, and other organizations in the public and private sectors, he has a good idea of what lies ahead.

Photo of Taka Ariga, GAO’s first Chief Data Scientist and Director of the Innovation Lab, discussing his vision for Innovation Lab with Innovation Lab staff

Taka Ariga, GAO’s first Chief Data Scientist and Director of the Innovation Lab, discussing his vision for Innovation Lab with Innovation Lab staff. | Source: GAO.

In today’s WatchBlog, we take a closer look at the Innovation Lab and what’s in store for the future.

“Data analytics is the tradecraft of distilling hidden insights and enabling people to rapidly act on those insights,” says Mr. Ariga. “Think about looking at your bank statement with a list of transactions. Being able understand spend patterns and spend relationships quickly is tremendously empowering when it comes to managing personal finances. If we ask increasingly sophisticated questions across multiple sets of data, we can now infer how the data might behave. In the user-centric environment of the Innovation Lab, by applying data science at scale and exploring emerging technologies such as machine learning and digital ledger, we will help the audit community address grand challenges.”

What is GAO’s Innovation Lab?

We launched our Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team earlier this year to meet Congress’s need for more and deeper analysis of science and technology and their policy implications. Part of the plan for this team was to create a lab for new advanced analytics and emerging technologies that will revolutionize how auditors and other government employees work.

Data scientists in our Innovation Lab will use emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and distributed ledger technology—which allows things like Bitcoin to function—in a “sandbox” testing environment to explore and deploy cutting-edge methods.

Here’s an example of the future impact of Innovation Lab: We have previously predicted that more than a trillion dollars of improper Medicare payments—such as overpayments incorrectly made to people or for services not actually provided—will be paid over the next decade, unless better prevention techniques can be developed.

When we conduct audits of programs like Medicare, we typically identify improper payments within one data set. But what if auditors could analyze multiple large data sets simultaneously to identify deceased individuals who are continuing to receive Medicare payments? The Innovation Lab will be able to use advanced search and data mining analysis to do just that.

Saving taxpayer money with advanced methods

The techniques that emerge from the Innovation Lab have the potential to save billions of dollars for taxpayers across the full spectrum of federal programs.

Imagine, for example, being able to throw the analytical power of AI and machine learning at the billions of data points in the Department of Treasury’s general fund and getting to the point where you could identify every improper payment without the need for any statistical sampling at all.

Understanding the opportunities, challenges, and implications of emerging technologies such as AI plays an important role in informed decision-making. In July, 2017, GAO brought together representatives from industry, government, academia, and nonprofit organizations during the Forum on Artificial Intelligence to consider the potential implications of AI developments. Participants highlighted several areas that they believe warrant further research (below).

Graphic Showing Implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Policy and Research

As lessons emerge in the Innovation Lab’s work, staff will share any best practices it finds with the larger audit community.

In the meantime, progress in ramping up operations continues. The Innovation Lab is focused on hiring highly-skilled staff, making sure they have the right tools for the job, and establishing business processes that will deliver exceptional work.

“Innovation Lab will help us collectively move the needle of the federal government, creating a space where we de-risk the use of innovative solutions and people can think about tackling challenges differently, allowing them to make better-informed decisions,” says Mr. Ariga.


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Our New Disaster Resilience Framework

Since 2005, federal funding for disaster assistance is approaching half a trillion dollars, most recently for catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and other losses in 2017 and 2018. As the number and severity of weather events continues to increase, the need for federal assistance will likely increase as well.

With this in mind, we created the Disaster Resilience Framework to serve as a guide for analyzing federal actions to enhance disaster resilience and reduce federal fiscal exposure to disasters. Read on (and listen to our podcast with Chris Currie) to learn more about the Framework.

 

Increasing disaster resilience, one decision at a time

Investing in disaster resilience—i.e., the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to disasters—can help limit damage and costs in the aftermath of a weather event. For example, elevating homes and strengthening building codes in Texas and Florida prevented greater damages during the 2017 hurricane season.

So, we created the Disaster Resilience Framework to help policymakers facilitate and promote disaster resilience throughout the nation—working with federal, state, local, and tribal governments as well as nongovernmental entities.

Framework components

The Framework lays out 3 broad overlapping principles to help guide federal disaster resilience efforts:

  • Information: Accessing authoritative and understandable information can help decision makers identify current and future risks, as well as the impact of risk-reduction strategies
  • Integration: Integrated analysis and planning can help decision makers take coherent and coordinated actions
  • Incentives: Incentives can help make long-term, forward-looking, risk-reduction investments more viable and attractive

Each of these principles includes questions that people who oversee or manage such efforts can consider not just after disaster strikes, but also in anticipation of a potential disaster.

Users of the Framework can use its principles and questions to:

  • Analyze the range of federal disaster resilience efforts, such as legislation, strategic plans, and programs
  • Identify gaps in existing federal efforts
  • Adapt the principles to the circumstances of the effort under consideration
  • Consider the federal role amongst other decision makers, such as states, localities, and nongovernmental entities

Check out our Disaster Resilience Framework to learn more.


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Lead Safety at Home and in School

Exposure to lead can harm a child’s brain, growth, behavior, and ability to learn. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most common source of lead exposure for children comes from lead paint hazards in homes and buildings (such as schools) built before 1978—the year the U.S. government restricted the sale of lead-based paint.

For National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, today’s WatchBlog explores some of our work related to lead safety in homes and schools.

New Water Fountain Installed to Replace One that was Leaching Lead

Lead in school drinking water

School drinking water is a daily source of water for more than 50 million children enrolled in public schools. Although lead pipes and solder weren’t commonly used after 1986, fountains and other fixtures were allowed to have up to 8% lead until 2014.

The potential for lead to leach into water increases the longer the water remains in contact with lead materials—a particular concern for schools, which have extended vacations during which water in the plumbing system remains stagnant.

We surveyed school districts across the country and found that 43% of districts, serving 35 million students, tested for lead. Of those, 37% districts found elevated levels and took steps to reduce or eliminate exposure.

Estimated Percentage of Public School Districts Reporting Lead Testing and Results for Drinking WaterWe made several recommendations to promote testing and improve guidance for school districts. Check out our podcast with Jackie Nowicki, a director in our Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, to hear more about our findings.

 

Lead in school paint

In schools, lead dust can come from disturbing lead paint during renovations, deteriorating lead paint, and lead-contaminated soil.

We surveyed schools on how they deal with lead paint and found that about 12% of school districts nationwide inspected for lead-based paint in 2016-2017. About half of those school districts found lead-based paint, and all of them took action to reduce or eliminate it or had plans to do so.

Figure 1: Estimated Percentage of School Districts That Inspected for Lead-Based Paint in 2016-2017

Lead paint in homes

In homes, infants and young children are especially at risk of lead exposure because they often crawl on the floor and frequently ingest nonfood items.

We reviewed the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to reduce lead exposure in housing, including its lead-reduction grants to state and local jurisdictions. From 2013-2017, HUD awarded over $500 million in these grants—71% of which were awarded to locations in the Northeast and Midwest, which are known to have a high prevalence of lead paint hazards.

Examples of Homes with Lead Paint Hazards

We found that HUD could improve its processes for identifying high risk areas for lead paint hazards and recommended, among other things, that it strengthen its oversight of public housing authorities’ compliance with lead paint regulations.

Lead safety in your home

If you think your home has lead-based paint, the EPA recommends a number of steps you can take to protect your family from lead hazards. These include:

  • Keep painted surfaces in good condition to minimize deterioration
  • Regularly clean floors, window sills, and other surfaces where lead dust can collect
  • If you rent, talk to your landlord about fixing surfaces with peeling or chipping paint
  • If you own, when renovating, repairing, or repainting, hire only EPA- or state-approved Lead-Safe certified renovation firms
  • Consult your healthcare provider about testing your children for lead. Your pediatrician can conduct a simple blood test.

For the full list of steps, see EPA’s June 2017 brochure.


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Preparing for Evolving Cybersecurity Threats Facing the U.S. Electric Grid

Electricity is essential for modern life. In addition to our modern home conveniences, like our microwaves, computers, and lighting, electricity is vital to hospitals, first responders, and financial services in our country.

So, what would happen if our electric grid were attacked?

For National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent report on the cybersecurity risks to the U.S. electric grid and federal efforts to address them. Read on, and listen to our podcast with Frank Rusco and Nick Marinos, the directors who led the report, to learn more.

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An Illustration of Powerlines

The U.S. electric grid faces significant cybersecurity risks

Nations, criminal groups, and terrorists pose the most significant cyber threats to U.S. critical infrastructure, according to the Director of National Intelligence’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment. These threat actors are increasingly capable of attacking the grid. For example, China and Russia have the ability to launch cyberattacks that could potentially disrupt grid operations.

The grid is also becoming more vulnerable to cyberattacks—particularly those involving industrial control systems, which are typically network-based systems that monitor and control processes and functions like opening and closing circuit breakers. These systems increasingly include remote access capabilities that can be exploited by malicious actors.

Graphic Showing Potential Ways an Attacker Could Compromise Industrial Control System Devices

Potential Ways an Attacker Could Compromise Industrial Control System (ICS) Devices

Even though cybersecurity incidents reportedly have not resulted in power outages domestically, cyberattacks on industrial control systems have disrupted foreign electric grid operations.

In addition, while recent federal assessments indicate that cyberattacks could cause widespread power outages in the United States, the scale of such outages is uncertain due to limitations in those assessments. For example, one of those assessments used a model that covered only a portion of the grid and reflected how that portion existed around 1980.

Federal efforts to address grid cybersecurity risks

The Department of Energy plays a key role in helping address grid cybersecurity risks. However, we found that DOE hasn’t developed plans that fully address the key characteristics needed for a national strategy, and we recommended that it do so.

In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—the regulator for the interstate transmission of electricity—has approved mandatory grid cybersecurity standards, but it hasn’t ensured that the standards fully address leading federal guidance for critical infrastructure cybersecurity.

Moreover, FERC’s threshold for which power generators must comply with all grid cybersecurity standards is based on an analysis that didn’t evaluate the potential risk of a coordinated cyberattack on geographically distributed targets. Such an attack could target, for example, a combination of systems in different parts of the country that each fall below the threshold.

We recommended that FERC consider adopting changes to its approved standards to more fully address federal guidance and evaluate the potential risk of a coordinated attack.

We believe these recommended actions will help address the significant cybersecurity risks facing the U.S. electric grid.


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Treating Behavioral Health Conditions in the United States

Nearly 57 million American adults had a mental health condition (such as depression), a substance use disorder, or both in 2017—and 70% of them didn’t receive treatment for these conditions.

Left untreated, these behavioral health conditions can cause other health complications, such as drug overdoses.

So, for Mental Illness Awareness Week, the WatchBlog looks at why so many people with these conditions go untreated, and efforts to increase access to treatment.

An untreated majority

Treatment for behavioral health conditions can help people reduce or stop substance abuse, manage their symptoms, and improve their quality of life. However, we found that the vast majority of people with these disorders don’t think they need treatment.

Possible reasons for this include:

  • Inability or unwillingness to recognize a behavioral health condition
  • Pessimism about the effectiveness of treatments
  • Preference for self-reliance

There are also millions of people who know they need help but still don’t get treatment for their conditions. These individuals cite reasons like cost, stigma, and not being able to access treatments (e.g., not knowing where to go for care or not having treatment options nearby).

Access challenges

Certain groups, such as low-income adults, have more trouble accessing treatment for behavioral conditions than others. For example, hourly wage workers may not be able to get time off from work for treatment, and those who are homeless may have to put other priorities first—such as finding shelter.

Some people also find it hard to access treatment because they aren’t close to treatment providers. This is partly due to a national shortage of behavioral health care professionals. For instance, 55% of the counties in the United States—all rural—don’t have any practicing behavioral health workers, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

A way forward

To help address this shortage, states have been increasingly turning to peer support specialists—people who use their own experiences recovering from mental illnesses to support others. (Their services are meant to complement, not replace, clinical services.)

These specialists work in a variety of settings, such as emergency rooms, independent peer-run organizations, and in housing agencies that help low-income families and people with disabilities find rental housing.

Some states receive federal funding from HHS for peer support specialist programs. We reviewed how these programs screen, train, and certify specialists, and identified 6 leading practices—such as training specialists in person and requiring continuing education. Learn more in our report.


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Proving You’re You: How Federal Agencies Can Improve Online Verification

So much of how we collect and share information in today’s world is done online. We get our news. We do our shopping and banking. We book appointments. And online access has even made it easier for us to apply for benefits and services within the federal government. But just how safe is our information out there in the federal cyber world?

In today’s WatchBlog, we look at our report on federal online verification processes. Read on and listen to our podcast with Nick Marinos, a director in our Information Technology & Cybersecurity team.

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Photo of a Person Working at a Computer

Verifying you are really you

When you apply online for benefits and services, many federal agencies rely on consumer reporting agencies to help verify your identity through a process called knowledge-based verification. This process usually involves answering a series of personal questions derived from information found in your credit files and is largely based on the assumption that only the true owner of the identity would know the answers. If you answer the questions correctly, your identity is considered verified.

For example, the Social Security Administration uses this technique to verify the identities of anyone seeking access to the “My Social Security” online service, which allows users to request a replacement Social Security or Medicare card, check the status of benefit applications, or request various other services.

However, data stolen in recent breaches, such as the 2017 Equifax data breach, has raised new questions about the safety of this practice. The risk is greater now that someone other than you may know the answers to questions about your personal credit history—leaving the door open for possible fraud and identify theft.

How the federal government is responding

This fraud risk prompted the National Institute of Standards and Technology to issue guidance in 2017 that prohibits federal agencies from using such knowledge-based verification process for sensitive applications. Alternative methods are available that offer stronger security, such as comparing a photo of an ID card captured on a cell phone to documentation on file.

Image Showing Examples of Alternative Identity Verification and Validation Methods that Federal Agencies Have Reported Using

However, these alternative methods can be limited by cost, convenience, and technological maturity. In addition, they may not be viable for everyone to use—for example, not all applicants may have cell phones to allow them to share their photo and verify their identity.

A closer look at federal identity proofing practices

We recently reviewed remote identify proofing practices for 6 agencies—all of which have major public-facing web applications that provide access to benefits or services.

We found that:

  • The Internal Revenue Service and General Services Administration had eliminated knowledge-based verification and began using alternative methods.
  • Veterans Affairs partially implemented an alternative method, but still relied on knowledge-based verification for some individuals.
  • The Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service intended to reduce or eliminate knowledge-based verification in the future, but didn’t yet have specific plans. The U.S. Postal Service has recently addressed our recommendation by implementing a remote identity verification solution for its Informed Delivery service that does not rely on knowledge-based verification.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had no plans to reduce or eliminate knowledge-based verification, citing high costs and challenges with implementing new practices.

Until these agencies take steps to eliminate their use of knowledge-based verification, however, the public that they serve may remain at increased risk of identity fraud. We made 6 recommendations, including that the National Institute of Standards and Technology provide guidance on implementing these alternative methods. The U.S. Postal Service has recently addressed one of our recommendations by implementing a remote identity verification solution for its Informed Delivery service that does not rely on knowledge-based verification.

Check out our report to learn more.


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