Getting benefit and have a Facebook account? Oh dear!

Dear Reader,

Below is a guest post from Paul Smyth which I feel is worthy of being read in relation to Universal Credit coming in October and from April in Tameside, Oldham, Wigan & Warrington (so the mixed-age pensioner could suffer the bedroom tax in 6 weeks!)  This is the major welfare reform of the coalition in which benefit claims are assessed online and not in a paper-based form as now.

In simple terms the government has 2 different computer systems, one for welfare benefits run by the DWP and the tax system run by HMRC and Universal Credit is administered through combining these two disparate computer systems into one system at a cost of between £2bn and £3.1bn – the estimates vary.

Paul’s article discusses the implications of this ‘digital by default’ process and I simply reproduce his thoughts and concerns below and invite your comments.

Universal Credit risks exposing people to Russian Gangsters

This April, the new system for paying benefits, Universal Credit, will go live for people in Tameside, Oldham, Wigan & Warrington. The rest of the country will be moved onto it by October. This is the flagship policy of Ian Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions. Many people like me will be involved in this trial, guinea pigs in a much criticised system.

Having worked in IT for 18 years as a Systems Architect, Analyst and Manager I have been involved in many projects like this; although none so large and complex. To understand how complex this project is we need to, first of all deal with what Universal Credit is and what it’s replacing. The majority of people seem to be under the impression that this is the replacement for Job Seekers Allowance; it’s not.

Universal Credit is intended to replace ALL Government issued benefits, including:

  • Housing Benefit
  • Income Support (IS)
  • Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA)
  • Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit
  • Budgeting loans and crisis loans.

So, in effect, it will affect a much larger pool of people than previously expected, i.e. every person in the country who earns less than £60,000. A large number of these people have no idea that they will be included. That is a convergence of systems from the DWP, HMRC & Local Councils. Each of these systems has to somehow talk to each other, which when one remembers that back in the ’90’s when they started planning to link the then Inland Revenue with the then DSS they found that the DSS had somewhere in the region of 3 million more NI numbers than the IR. I cannot begin to describe just how complex this project is so I won’t try. Perhaps that’s for another article. So let’s focus else.

In order to provide access to this system the Government has come up with the “Identity Assurance Scheme”. In the past you would’ve turned up at the Job Centre along with your Passport and Utility Bills and that would be taken as proof of ID. You could be asked to provide these again at some point but generally these were considered safe. With a purely online system, and after April this will be 100% online, the Government have decided to use third party systems to authenticate and identify you. Several providers have been awarded contracts including The Post Office, Experian, Verizon and Paypal.

The difference between online authentication and physical authentication are fairly obvious. To produce fake documents that will stand scrutiny requires a certain level of sophistication. We’ve all heard about Identity Theft and may even know somebody who’s been affected but in order to receive someone’s benefits one needs to produce the correct documentation and convince someone in person that you are that person. These documents don’t come cheap. In order to impersonate someone online all that is required is to hack their email account. This invariably gives access to their Paypal, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, LinkedIn etc. Pretty much they’re entire digital life.

Most ordinary people don’t fully understand the principals of secure passwords or two factor authentication. They will generally have one password for everything, one they’ll consider secure. But that is far from the biggest flaw in this system; the biggest risk to them is that online fraudsters, especially from China and Russia, will see this as the biggest opportunity in the history of internet fraud. This same system will eventually be used for issuing driving licenses and passports. So we have a system that will use various companies who never meet you to issue passports and driving licences and manage benefits, pensions and taxation. Far too good an opportunity to resist.

So what can be done to make this more secure? Well perhaps they could provide people with special software to protect their computers but therein lies the problem and it’s the problem with this entire approach to “Digital by Default”. The majority of people on benefits can’t afford a broadband connection. They will have to go to libraries or friends and relatives houses, places where they will have no control over the computer they’re using. They won’t know if they’re neighbour’s PC has a virus on it that causes every website visited along with every key typed to be transmitted to an organised crime syndicate in Russia or China.

They would most likely be having to check their email while they’re there and perhaps log into Facebook. Of course then they’ll go about their business as usual having no idea that someone is accessing their benefit records and changing the bank account details, hacking into their Facebook account to send messages to their friends which contain links that will cause their friends to be hacked too. It’s quite possible that until they next visit the cash machine, they might not even know what’s happened to them. They will have been digitally burgled, their email account taken over, no way of getting back their Facebook account, their bank account emptied, their benefits being sent to China or Russia and their identity stolen.

One of the biggest issues is going to be demand on the libraries who’ve managed to survive the Spending Review. They will have queues of people wanting to use their computers to access the internet, people who have no internet, indeed people who don’t own a computer at all and possibly never have. They won’t know how to use a computer much less have a quick look around the back for a key logging device. It’s quite likely more local gangs will realise very quickly the opportunity that these places present. In one week they could very quickly gain access to hundreds of bank accounts. In essence we could be looking at a new organised crime network of American Prohibition proportions especially when you consider that according to ONS figures 20% of households in the UK do not have internet access and that rises to 36% for households where one of the occupants is over 65.

Many of these households have never needed nor wanted internet access, particularly the over 50’s. Now they are going to have to learn how to use the internet, acquire an email address and learn how to navigate a website. They won’t know what’s suspicious and what isn’t.

I know from the experience of own Mother when she was tricked into paying £29.95 for the free Adobe Reader. She searched Google, the first link that came up was a scam but she knew no better. She paid her money and got sent a link to Adobe’s website. Of course as soon as she told me what she’d done we managed to stop the payment and get the card stopped but had she not done so, her credit card would’ve been used to the credit limit and she would’ve been liable.

So what we have is a flawed system that has been ill thought through which will put the most vulnerable people in our society at risk of fraud and destitution without the support required to ensure that these people are protected. There aren’t enough facilities available for them to use to access it and they don’t have the money to provide their own. The DWP most certainly doesn’t have the trained staff available to help them and considering the budgeting choices councils have to make, they don’t either.

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17 thoughts on “Getting benefit and have a Facebook account? Oh dear!

  1. Surely the government must be aware of these problems, and if not, then you need to let them know Would it be possible for you to get this into a national newspaper. Great article by the way. Thanks. x

  2. This article is causing a bit of a stir! The purpose is simply to flag up the issue and that many more issues of concern WILL happen with the welfare ‘reforms’ (though as ‘reform’ means to improve thats a huge misnomer!)
    I have previously written about the UC IT system mainly because it is claimed to be able to complete 5000 claims per day, which is 1.83m claims per year yet each of those claims includes a Housing Benefit element and there are 5.05m HB claims which all have to assessed at least once a year – hence the £2bn- £3.1bn system which we taxpayers have paid for simply can’t cope!
    Back to the article and I don’t know what % of benefit claimants have broadband and if anyone does please comment below. Also I gather the Russian / Chinese gangster is simply illustrative and nothing to stop criminal activity from South America or London for that matter.

    Overall the reaction judging by the comments on Twitter and Facebook has achievedd the stated purpose – to get this concern out there – and it is just one concern of many, which all go to show that the coalition has NOT thought through much if not all of these so-called ‘reforms.’

  3. I recently was summons to the jobcentre and was disgusted with he utter disdain shown to my wife /carer who was told this has nothing to do with you.
    So I lodged a formal complaint to the minister and the PM I got a response from the minister and an a three word note from the PM office Jnr
    But at least the jobcentre got a rocket from the boss they phoned me and tried to apologise to me I said it is not me who deserves it it is my wife who is also my carer without whom I would not have been able to attend.
    Whilst I had her on the phone I asked her to explain how UB would effect me?
    Her answer is we have not been shown how to work it yet and there are problems with the IT as they won’t talk to each other.
    But it is supposed to be coming into to force in a few weeks . It will be postponed I think!!
    It this what is going to happen????

    1. Ian, this simple issue is one the general public can understand and I have no doubt there are many other huge assumptions and lack of pre-thought just on the ‘digital by default’ aspect of UC.

      I wonder just how tenants and all on benefits are supposed to find out about these issues, If you think on that it becomes startling that such day to day changes that will affect those on benefit is not known and has NOT been communicated by government or by tenant groups or by landlord

    2. Ian, as someone with a great deal of IT expertise and a great deal of experience teaching people to use computers I could’ve written a book on what’s wrong with this system, let alone an article. I’ve spoken to many people I know who work in IT and we all share the same opinion, the sums simply don’t add up. I can see the costs of this system sky rocketting. Iain Duncan Smith may think he can just bark at people and they’ll jump, computers don’t work that way. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  4. It won’t happen. It was originally supposed to be up and rocking in all its glory very shortly but since it doesn’t exist yet that’s going to be difficut to achieve. I’d think there’ll be a small paper trial somewhere and then it’ll be left to die away. You can’t implement what doesn’t exist!

  5. @joehalewood (for some reason I can’t reply to you in the thread!)…I think a lot of people are ignorant about these changes. I gave the article I wrote to my father at the weekend who turned to me when he had finished and said he had no idea about this (my father is a pensioner and reads the Mail/Express). As he is someone who believes that the welfare bill should be cut, it was interesting to hear his surprise and concern about this move. I think there are a lot of people out there who are completely unaware of this. Indeed, many of those will be in work and will only become aware of it should the unfortunate happen.

    1. Two quick points. Firstly, no government can reduce the welfare bill if they exempt pensioners – yet if they dont they get voted out of office!
      Secondly, there are millions in work who may suffer this as there are 960k in work claiming HB (rising by £10k per month since election) and more than that claiming working tax credit so this is NOT just something that affects those out of work and those in work may well be ahigher risk as they have more to be swindled !

  6. I posted this on Inspector Gadgets blog http://inspectorgadget.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/the-reality-of-police-cuts-in-london/ about the possibility of a riot and what could be the tipping point (It’s currently in moderation)

    Like the bedroom tax,
    the council tax tax,
    the 1% benefits uprating tax,
    ATOS assessments every 2 years including people who will never get better,
    removal of DLA, replaced with a hard to get PIP,
    the overall benefit cap,
    further reductions in LA funding,
    universal credit roll out, 3 IT systems cobbled together to process everyone (hahaha thats so going to work when a few million people don’t get their payment when it fails, both for working and non working people)
    and making benefits monthly not fortnightly payments.

    All coming in April 1st, and a lot of people don’t even know about some of the changes yet….

    A perfect shitstorm of badly thought out “reforms” by that master of intelligence and failed “leader” IDS (who lied on his CV about his academic qualifications)

    Come summer when people are getting into rent arrears and not paying their council tax out of their benefits and getting demanding letters from all and sundry and its nice and warm outside and it will be Camorons poll tax mkII.

    I realise thats slightly off topic but its indicative of just how woefully lacking any impact assessment has been done on these “reforms,” they had 13 years to think about the changes and what might happen and didn’t.

    Having worked in IT before my breakdown (big iron) I know for a fact that there is probably very little “what if it breaks, what is our alternative, how can we process the days work when our system has gone down, how quickly can we recover a failed disk system, have we used journaling in the correct way so we only have to replay them over the nightly back up.”

    They’ve already said that the only “testing” done is on the simplest transaction type “a single person” and none on the exceptions or the variable cases such as “non-dependant deductions” when the person working is on variable pay causing them to cross the thresholds on a weekly basis… which means that any delay in doing the adjustment will likely mean that a higher deduction (he has to pay more) is required just as his wages drop again; also at the moment its quite easy to work out this via the council leaflet, often we have paid the correct amount weeks before the council sends its amended CT letter… if this is all done by processing HMRC records against HB/CT records with no input from us then these changes will be done in the dark, with no way for us to know how much he has to pay me to forward to the HA and council… what a total nightmare.

    In addition, who do I see to sort the problem when it happens? an 0845 number? a PO box? I cant see the council (out of their hands) I cant see the job center (not their remit) I guess I could use their phones if I’m allowed and one is free but having experienced this method of contact for child benefit&CTC and being on hold for upto 40 mins before talking to someone the queue is going to be out the door and half way to London (I live near Derby) They might have an email to use… so who is going to deal with thousands of emails a day; perhaps an online form with “types of enquiry” to pre-process some of the questions, again who is going to deal with the potentially thousands of questions manually… As it is, the local council will still have to deal with the CT side of things while HB will all be done in a big room somewhere with an operator called “bob” who is obviously in India and has access to my records, bank account details, etc… a bigger nightmare.

    Heck if they can’t keep safe millions of records left on a train, do we really thin they will be able to keep safe the nightly DVD’s as they are shipped across a city as the computer don’t even live in the same building… and who is doing the IT work? and what restrictions are there about where the data must physically reside and what safe guards are there to prevent the outsourcing company from taking them to say America or someone in the building (on min wage) slipping a couple of DVDs in and backing it all up to sell onto the highest bidder, not to mention what happens when the website is hit by a dos attack or a million people have recieved their payment a week late…. Its the most stupidest idea ever, far greater than the nightmare that is the UJM site and look how well thats worked so far with spammers and fakes and data theft.

    1. Jonathon, it’s like you read my mind. As I said, I could’ve written a book on this, like me you understand how real testing is done and understand the sheer size and complication of a system like this works. You know how long it takes to reach a point where you’re happy to go live and how long you’d run the system in parallel before doing so. We could probably spend hours on the subject. Also like me you’ve read the IT trade papers as well as The Register and have spent years reading about Government IT projects going 3/4 times over budget and being scrapped because of the sheer complication of bringing these systems together. Shambles is not the word!!

      Oh well, at least they can just put all the unemployed on the Work experience programme and have them take their own calls about their benefit not going in, make excuses to themselves about it, provaricate for a little while then cut themselves off for being apparently rude to themselves when they got fed up of waiting 50 minutes to get through to themselves on an 0845 number only to be given the run around by themselves!

  7. Thank you for that comprehensive and well explained article – it is highly informative and will serve well, many people in many walks of life. There is a great deal in there that I didn’t know before but the framework of the system is much as I suspected – namely the corraling of masses of sensitive information in one place- with all the convenience- and dangers which would apply to putting a great many eggs in a single basket.

    I can work a computer and I’m fairly adept but the inner workings of software which you understand so well are more or less a complete mystery to me.While I was aware that this new system was all encompassing far beyond the span of the benefits systems, when explained as it has been here, the breadth of it is quite breath taking.

    It was quite obvious that when the job seekers website was altered to a compulsory (intended) log-in system that this government was closing in on anyone claiming benefits.

    This latest information confirms and expands on that principle with the tentacles reaching in to every aspect of life in the UK.

    I had heard that security on this system was poor to non existent and that as a result, the identities of anyone and everyone with information recorded on there were vulnerable to hackers. I am sure that the professionals in many countries will be awaiting the full launch which will give them a dream access.

    I feel that in every thing this government does, there are shades of the totalitarian state and this is no different. What will also be no different to anything else they have attempted is that once more they will bite off much more than they can chew.Endemic ineptitude will ensure that even a minor fault on an all encompassing computer system of this magnitude will ensure that entitlements will not be paid on time and people will be left at best,frustrated and angry at and worst
    cold, hungry and without vital medicines and supplies for which they are unable to pay.

    This is a nightmare scenario set up by a government out of it’s depth.The system is obviously designed to treat the people of this nation as mere numbers to be kept under thumb. The chaos however, which will potentially arise from a malfunction in this all singing all dancing yet ill conceived piece of apparatus, may turn out to be what signals the downfall of it’s masters.

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