The “Welfare Queen” and the Battle for Digital Identity

by Ian Rosenwach on 12.26.2013

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This past weekend I read a great piece by Josh Levin in Slate about Linda Taylor, the “Welfare Queen” of  Chicago. She was made famous because Ronald Reagan used her in the mid-70’s as an example of the excess of the welfare state. The full piece is well worth the read.

To use Linda Taylor as an example of the welfare state run amok had a powerful political affect for Reagan, but she is not your average Jane. She lived, and ruined, many lives. Evidence suggests she might have even been a killer.

Multiple Lives 

The story of Linda Taylor is a complicated one. On one hand it’s a story about a con-woman who beat the system, swindling the government out of millions through welfare fraud. Yet Taylor’s story is also about mental health care and the lack of effective ways for society to identify and treat those with serious mental illness. Her story also has shock value; one has to wonder what kind of person lives like Linda Taylor. She could talk her way to the top, yet seems to have a lack of either awareness or concern about the pain she caused.

The Slate article doesn’t delve deeply into how Taylor’s mental state related to her behavior. At times her actions sound like the behavior of a psychopath. Understandably, the author doesn’t want to play doctor and diagnose Taylor as a psychopath. Instead they lean on words like “evil”, “terrifying”, and “calculating” to explain her behavior. Levin states –

Despite the striking synchronicity between this (Hare Psychopathy) checklist and Taylor’s behavior, diagnosing someone as a psychopath isn’t as easy as ticking a set of boxes.

I think the piece could have spent more time on Taylor’s mental health and mental illness as a serious national issue.

Manufacturing Identity

In this and many of her other battles, Linda Taylor’s weapons were documents, paperwork of uncertain provenance that buttressed her version of events. — Slate

Taylor’s story made me think of digital identity and how it could make the types of abuse Taylor carried out more difficult. But if we look at this in the context of the Snowden NSA revelations and the rollout of HealthCare.gov, among other things, it’s clear we have a long way to go.

Linda Taylor was in the business of manufacturing identity. What enabled her to abuse the system was the fact she could back up her claims with paperwork. She could produce paperwork that claimed she was a doctor, someone’s wife, someone’s mother, or owned a desirable piece of real estate – you name it and Taylor could produce the paper to back it up. This could range from a birth certificate to a department store credit. All in the spirit of continuing her fantasy while collecting from the government.

The fact she had a piece of paper made her believable in the eyes of the system and the people working for the system. The Taylor story takes place mostly in the 1970’s and 80’s and the government obviously has become better at using technology to prevent fraud since then. But improving government based on the smart use of technology is not the government’s strong suit.

Some waste is to be expected and has been endured by the government for the last 50-plus years. Given the fragile state of the US deficit and long term challenges to the US dollar, fraud and waste are things we can afford now less than ever, and I expect this trend to increase.

Identity in Today’s Digital World 

Being the authority on identity is big business for both startups and the major Internet companies, especially Facebook, Square, and Google. Companies that are a trusted source of personal identity that means they can expand their business in new ways from extending their sign-on to 3rd parties to peer-to-peer money transfers. They provide advertisers with a more accurate picture of the audience they reach when they buy ads through these sites. That in itself is worth billions of dollars.

Facebook create account

It’s safe to say that Facebook is the leader on digital identity. Today you probably connect your Facebook account to other sites, like TripAdvisor, MayMyRun, or one of thousands of sites that use Facebook as an account option. They’re not doing this to verify your identity, but to grow the popularity of their products.

The Old Fashioned Email Address

Who’s to say that a nationally sanctioned digital identity would really have prevented people like Linda Taylor from gaming the system? Great hackers and con artists will stay one step in front of their adversaries.

It’s not hard to create a fake Facebook account, all it just takes is a unique email address. The email address acts as a de facto unique digital identity today; the internet version of a social security number.  This is far from perfect and easily gamed, but well-justified largely on the founding principles of the Internet – no country “owns” the web. 

It’s worth noting that a key part of Facebook from day one has been that people use their real identities. From their help center

Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.

This is one of their innovations and speaks to how seriously Facebook takes digital identity. But this warning wouldn’t have stopped Linda Taylor; if she wanted to she’d have lots of Facebook accounts. But she might not have had to since a Facebook account isn’t viewed as an authoritative voice for digital identity by the government and other major institutions. Will this change? Should this change?

Will Society Ever Trust the Government

When applying for entitlement benefits from the government, let’s say you’re asked to connect to a third party ID system. Just like we do with Facebook today on sites like MayMyRun and Netflix. But this system likely won’t be Facebook – it could be managed by a consortium, panel of judges, an independent agency, or in any number of ways. Once you get into how a digital ID system would actually work, things start sounding too much like the FISA court for me and likely other Americans.

Balance

If the government is not trusted, there is no way any society will go along with an effort for them to digitally track our identity. Inefficiencies created by a lack of technology adoption will continue. One of the most costly effects of the breach of trust caused by recent revelations around NSA surveillance could be the amount of waste and fraud that continues, some of which could have potentially been prevented.

Bottom Line

Are you ready to trust the government? Think about the upside.

You’ll be more confident that the government will be there in your times of need. Government programs like welfare, unemployment, social security, and medicaid account for a large part of government spending. If there was less waste, the government will be able to provide better services to a broader range of people.

Once we have a less porous safety net, money that was previously lost can be reinvested in education reform. Over time this leads to more people graduating high school, going to college, and entering the workforce. This leads to less inequality, the poverty rate drops, and less people in the welfare system.

I’m exaggerating, but it’s easy to forget about the benefits of the convergence of digital identity and the government. After all, you trust the government.

Don’t you?

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