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Disability Insurance Observer: Investigations

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I got busy last week and almost missed the startling news that one of the big, public Internet privacy cases relates to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claim fraud investigations. New York prosecutors sought 381 very broad subpoenas for 381 Facebook users. The goal was to see if police officers and firefighters who received mental health-related SSDI benefits after participating in the response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Manhattan were misusing the benefits.

Prosecutors say malingerers may have bilked $400 million out of the SSDI program.

On the one hand: If the SSDI beneficiaries filed fraudulent claims, investigating them is a noble, important work.

See also: 

SSDI fraud indictment includes 9-11 responders

SSA wants more support for SSDI deadbeat hunt

Investigating people who bilk commercial disability insurance programs is equally important. If we don’t protect disability insurance programs against crooks, we won’t have disability insurance.

But, on the other hand: Part of my own mild, non-work-impeding response to the Sept. 11 attacks is paranoia about 9/11 paranoia. I work in what may well be the second most attractive target for terrorism in the United States.

When I come out of the subway in the morning, I often see armed soldiers, or paramilitary-style police officers. I’m so creeped out by them that I don’t dare look directly at them and am not even sure what kinds of weapons they hold. 

So: Al Qaeda, other organized bad guys, or ordinary crazy people could blow me up as I’m heading to work to write LifeHealthPro articles. If the government has some way to use the Internet to keep that from happening: Great!

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But terrorists have never directly bothered me. The government’s effort to protect me causes me stress every day.

When the Washington Post wrote about “PRISM” — a National Security Agency (NSA) effort to gather information about potential bad guys Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other U.S. providers of Internet-based services — that added to the stress.

In theory, the government has scoured my private e-mail — including, for example, the e-mails in my junk mail folder from con artists in Nigeria who want me to send them my bank account information — to protect me. But the government could use the same information to mistakenly decide that I’m much scarier than I am. Or, if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) hated one of my Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) blogs, maybe someone at HHS could talk to a friend at the NSA to talk to someone in the PRISM office to find some mean thing I wrote about a co-worker in a fit of childish petulance, then use that to show me who’s boss.

If commercial disability insurers move the kinds of investigative practices they’ve used in the off-line world into the digital world, and get legal authorization to do so: That’s great. People who claim disability benefits and then go up on ladders to fix their roofs should expect to attract investigators’ eyes.

Maybe they should expect investigators to get focused, well-justified, court-monitored subpoenas to look in their Facebook message folders.

See also: Social Security Sends Out the Detectives

But if private disability insurance fraud investigators — or government prosecutors who are helping private disability insurers, or even SSDI investigators — use the kinds of high-powered, shadowy, officially sanctioned, un-challengeable tools that the NSA aims at Al Qaeda to catch disability beneficiaries who are healthy enough to fix their roofs, I think that will eventually prove to be catastrophic both for the insurers and for the people who are sincerely looking for terrorists.

If simply filing an insurance claim means that you’re giving the insurer sweeping, open-ended, NSA-like access to look at every naughty word you’ve ever spoken or typed into a telephone or computer, why would any thinking person ever file an insurance claim? If thinking people know they can’t file insurance claims without exposing every word they’ve ever spoken or typed into a voice or data network, why would they buy insurance?

And, if people get a sense that the government often lets investigators use sweeping surveillance tools to monitor ordinary crooks — and ordinary, mostly law-abiding people — why would they let the government use those tools to monitor anyone? People might decide the government is so much more likely to abuse the tools than to use them against high-value targets that the tools have to be taken out of the NSA’s tool belt.