The Technology 202: Silicon Valley companies are rolling out coronavirus stimulus check services

with Tonya Riley

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Silicon Valley companies are advertising services that they say will let Americans more quickly access the $1,200 stimulus checks that the federal government began doling out this week. 

More than 80 percent of Americans are eligible for a stimulus check under the CARES Act relief package, but actually getting money in their pockets quickly is a massive technological challenge

These fintech companies say they can help speed up the bureaucratic process. 

  • Intuit launched a “2020 Stimulus Check Calculator,” where people can check whether they’re eligible for a stimulus check. If they haven’t filed taxes yet this year, the website directs them to use TurboTax’s services to prepare their 2019 returns, so they can receive their refund and stimulus check via direct deposit more quickly. If they don’t need to file taxes, the website directs them to set up a TurboTax Online account to ensure the government has access to their information. 
  • PayPal is directing people to have their stimulus check deposited to a PayPal Cash Card account, essentially a debit card that is accepted anywhere Mastercard works. The company has said this product could be particularly useful for many unbanked Americans to access the checks. It’s free to deposit the check with that account, but PayPal takes ATM and other fees. 
  • Square launched a website directing people to download its Cash app for fast payment. The company says people can enter their Cash account routing and account number on IRS websites to quickly get a direct deposit so they don’t have to wait for a check to come in the mail. The service works like PayPal, where people can use the money to pay friends or businesses on the app, or apply for a debit card (which also takes ATM fees). 

But some critics in Washington are wary of these services, saying they could exploit the crisis to amass more customers and their data. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a longtime privacy hawk, warned against the Internal Revenue Service being overly dependent on private middlemen as it seeks to distribute the funds. 

“This crisis has highlighted the consequences of a decade of IRS budget cuts,” he told The Technology 202 in a statement. “The IRS should be less dependent on private companies to distribute refund payments to millions of Americans. Over the long term we need to ensure that IRS has the resources to more quickly respond especially in an economic downturn.”

Yet the companies say they are happy to help solve the challenge, especially in getting the payments to the many Americans who don’t have their direct deposit information on file with the IRS. The IRS says an initial round of 80 million stimulus checks began to hit bank accounts over the weekend, but there are millions who don’t have their bank account information on file with the agency because they make too little to file taxes or do so by mail. 

“We need to get financial support to people in underserved communities as soon as possible,” PayPal chief executive Daniel Schulman told The Technology 202. “Every day matters.”  

The IRS is offering some services through its own website: It’s rolling out several free tools to help Americans quickly access their check, which is up to $1,200 for Americans making less than $75,000 per year. Americans making up to $99,000 are eligible for some payment under the program. The agency yesterday launched the Get My Payment tool, which allows people to check the status of their stimulus check and enter banking information to get it direct deposited more quickly. The IRS is warning people to only to use the tool once a day so it isn’t overwhelmed by traffic. 

Some of these services were built in partnership with tech companies. Intuit for instance helped develop a tool for those who are not required to file a tax return to electronically file minimal information that can be used to establish their eligibility for a stimulus check and provide direct deposit information. 

The checks are a critical avenue for the federal government to ensure the millions of Americans who are out of work can pay their bills and buy food or other supplies during the deadly pandemic. 

But as people race to access this relief, they should be wary of how their data is being used, privacy experts say. 

“Consumers would be wise to read the privacy policies and know why the company needs that information, what the company is going to do with the information, and how long they’re going to keep the information and who they’re going to share it with,” Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Adam Schwartz said. 

“This really goes to show the larger need for laws that protect the consumer in these situations,” Schwartz added. He noted the EFF has called for privacy laws that would require data minimization, which would prevent companies using data for purposes other than what the consumer intends. 

The Intuit effort particularly has raised concerns among some experts who are wary that the company could use data entered in the TurboTax calculator to market other paid services. So far more than 165,000 people have used the tool, which Intuit says has helped facilitate the distribution of more than $230 million in stimulus payments.

ProPublica reported that people who used Intuit’s product to register for the stimulus were inundated with marketing emails with subject lines such as “E-file with direct deposit for your fastest refund and stimulus check.” Those emails push users to TurboTax’s tax prep products, which charge based on what services customers select.

Intuit says these are standard emails sent to new users and that it stopped sending them to people who signed up through the stimulus product. 

“As soon as we learned these emails were inadvertently going to people who created accounts solely for the stimulus registration product, we stopped the emails from being automatically sent,” company spokesman Rick Heineman told me. 

But experts warn that even tools like the stimulus calculator could be a way for the company to amass more data, especially about customers who don’t typically file taxes. Dennis Ventry, a tax law professor at University of California, Davis, told ProPublica the calculator “is a treasure trove of data for Intuit.” 

“The company can harvest the personal data of people who previously made up a universe of Americans that the tax prep companies didn’t interact with,” he said. 

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: A Pentagon watchdog found no evidence that Defense Department employees were unduly influenced by the White House when they opted to award its largest-ever cloud computing contract to Microsoft over AmazonEllen Nakashima and Aaron Gregg report. However, the White House prevented senior department officials from answering the Office of the Inspector General’s questions, stopping the watchdog from making a definitive determination about the extent of the Trump administration’s interactions with the employees working on the deal.  

The report affirms that the agency “conducted the JEDI Cloud procurement process fairly and in accordance with law,” Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Carver, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement.

Amazon had a bid in to build the massive computing system in July, but the president ordered a halt to the process, publicly citing complaints from Amazon’s competitors. The award then went to Microsoft in October. President Trump has frequently and publicly expressed disdain for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.

Outside government oversight groups say that the report doesn’t rule out improper conduct by Trump, who recently fired the Pentagon’s acting inspector general.

“Essentially what we learned from the IG report is that while there was no successful effort to influence the award, it appears that they tried given the fact that they invoked the privilege,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. “And that’s not okay. There’s no place for the president’s personal vendettas in a contracting decision.” 

NIBBLES: At-home grocery delivery services were expected to be a lifeline during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead they’re faltering amid a shortage of workers to keep pace with skyrocketing demand, my colleague Abha Bhattarai reports

Customers for platforms including Shipt, Instacart and Peapod are reporting weeks-long waits, and companies are scrambling to quickly expand their ranks.

“I’ve been refreshing the page like a maniac, like I’m trying to get tickets to a really hot concert — and no matter what, it doesn’t work,” said Ruth Papazian, a 62-year old East Bronx resident who lives with her 85-year-old mother. She hasn’t managed to snag a delivery window for any of the platforms that serve her area in more than four weeks.

Delivery companies including Instacart, which has seen a quadrupled demand in orders, have responded by hiring thousands more workers. The rapid increase in demand has also buoyed new rivals such as Dumpling, an online platform for independent delivery workers that has seen a 15-fold increase in demand from the month before.

Analysts say that services will eventually catch up, but the unprecedented demand continues to strain workers and shoppers. Grocery delivery workers are spending twice as much time to fulfill an order, and many have gone on strike to protest unsafe working conditions and low wages during the pandemic. Meanwhile, those stuck at home anxious await groceries.

“I don’t know why I bother anymore,” Papazian told Abha.

BYTES: Independent contractors in dozens of states are still struggling to get benefits they won in a $2 trillion-dollar coronavirus relief package passed last monthMegan Cassella and Rebecca Rainey at Politico report

States didn’t receive guidance from the Labor Department until April 5 on how to implement benefits to gig workers, which caused an initial stall. Worker groups say that companies’ refusal to report how much gig workers earned has stymied the process even more.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents ride-hailing drivers in the area, is petitioning for Uber to immediately provide New York’s labor department with drivers’ wage information, Megan and Rebecca report.

“Nobody has gotten anything,” said Nicole Moore of Rideshare Drivers United, an association for ride-hailing drivers. California has told drivers in the state that they can’t provide them with benefits without income verification.

The state of Louisiana has already doled out $1.7 million in benefits to gig workers under the new program — by ignoring federal requirements on how to distribute it.

“This pandemic doesn’t discriminate,” Louisiana Workforce Commission Secretary Ava Dejoie said in a statement. “Self-employed workers are just as concerned about paying for basic necessities: rent, mortgage, utilities and such, as everyone else. Delaying their payments was simply unacceptable.” 

PRIVATE CLOUD

Google News Initiative launched a relief fund to provide aid for thousands of small, medium and local news publishers globally, it announced yesterday.

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PUBLIC CLOUD

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CHECK-INS

  • The Open Technology Institute will host an online event on work-from-home digital security on April 21 at 11:00am. 

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