Obama-Era Tech Project Was Supposed to Help Taxpayers. It Could Get Them Hacked Instead.

April 4, 2023

The Obama administration had high hopes when it launched the Technology Transformation Services in 2014. Intended to bring the spirit of Silicon Valley into the federal bureaucracy, the team was tasked with modernizing the government’s aging technology infrastructure.

Nearly a decade later, the team has been defined by a series of failures and outright fraud, the latest of which could expose millions of Americans to identity theft.

Login.Gov was supposed to offer taxpayers secure access to all government programs through a single web portal, launched in 2017. The $187 million system is now used by 20 agencies, which were led to believe it was capable of verifying users through facial recognition and other biometric scans, a federal cybersecurity requirement.

That was a lie. The General Services Administration’s inspector general revealed in March that TTS knew as early as 2018 that Login.Gov had no biometric verification capabilities. That didn’t stop the group from charging other agencies a grand total of $10 million for the nonexistent security feature.

Login.Gov’s failures could soon become a problem for Americans. Just weeks after GSA exposed the site’s security issues, the IRS said it intends to implement the program sometime after Tax Day in April, which would expose people who wish to file their taxes with the IRS online to Login.Gov. That would make it easier for bad actors to commit identity theft against taxpayers, according to former Homeland Security assistant secretary for policy Stewart Baker.

"People will try to get your refund before you can get it by filing a tax return in your name," Baker told the Washington Free Beacon.

The IRS isn’t the only agency set to onboard with the program. The White House is considering exposing the entire population to Login.Gov by mandating its use across federal benefits programs, according to a draft executive order obtained by FCW.

Jeremy Grant, a cybersecurity expert and coordinator of the Better Identity Coalition, said it would be "unconscionable" for the White House to push Login.Gov in light of the revelations from the GSA inspector general’s report in March.

The White House and GSA did not return requests for comment.

Known initially as 18F, TTS is a government agency "built in the spirit of America’s top tech start-ups" that charges other federal agencies exorbitant fees to help design and implement technology projects.

It didn’t take long for the team to come under scrutiny. A 2017 General Services Administration inspector general report found that TTS routinely throws security to the wayside, cuts corners, and violates rules and procedures. A host of agency tech leaders have accused TTS of leaving a path of digital destruction in their wake and leaving them to clean up the mess.

TTS’s willful deception about Login.Gov could have facilitated up to $400 billion in COVID relief fraud through the Small Business Administration, one of the agencies that uses Login.Gov to verify identities.

"The fraud that was perpetrated by as it relates to the Small Business Administration makes it harder for us to hold individuals who committed fraud accountable," Rep. William Timmons (R., S.C.) said at a House Oversight hearing on Wednesday. "We don’t necessarily know who they are because Login.Gov didn’t work as it was intended."

The fraud surrounding Login.Gov should come as no surprise, the GSA inspector general noted in its March report. TTS’s failure is "rooted in its historic 18F culture that considered oversight burdensome and believed it did not have to align its practices with other components," the watchdog stated.

"TTS sells you snake oil and then leaves," an unnamed agency CIO told Federal News Network. "My team must clean up TTS’ mess, and programs are more upset because they didn’t get what they thought they were promised." Another agency technology head added: "If you talk to any CIO, they will tell you they will not welcome having TTS interject themselves into their enterprise."

Former GSA Federal Technology Service commissioner Bob Woods called the group a "train wreck" in 2021. "What they had going for them was political wannabes up the line who wanted to claim they made the government innovative and cool," Woods told FCW. "They ran up deficits and wrote articles claiming to [sic] transforming government. It's easier to claim it. Doing it is hard. To add insult to injury they banded with other ne'r [sic] do wells to insult those who made the place go and depicted themselves as innovators."

The team’s record of incompetence is of no apparent concern to the Biden administration, which injected $150 million into the group as part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan. President Joe Biden requested an additional $115.8 million for the group in his 2023 budget.