Ed Department issues technical guidance for FAFSA tool

Courtesy of EdScoop | Emily Tate

The Department of Education has issued technical guidance for higher ed institutions to address security flaws in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Data Retrieval Tool, used to help students apply for federal aid.

The recommended fixes, announced Monday, are aimed at getting the tool back online in time for the 2018-2019 Federal Student Aid application cycle, which begins Oct. 1.

The tool, which allowed families to import their IRS tax information electronically into the Education Department’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, has been unavailable since March of this year. The IRS and the education department’s Federal Student Aid office shut down the DRT over privacy and security concerns, affecting millions of students.

Officials at the two agencies feared the tool was being used to steal account holders’ personal information, including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and tax filing statuses. The identity thieves could conceivably “use that information for illegal purposes, including filing false tax returns in hope of receiving tax return refunds,” James Runcie, chief operating officer of Federal Student Aid, wrote in an announcement.

A couple of months later, in May, Runcie said the IRS and FSA had agreed to a solution that would allow the tool to become available again in time for the 2018-19 FAFSA cycle.

The solution limits the applicant information displayed on both the DRT website and on the FAFSA webpages and encrypts taxpayer information. “While students and parents will still be able to electronically transfer their IRS tax return information into the FAFSA, the information will not be visible to would-be malicious actors,” Runcie wrote in May.

The announcement this week provides technical clarifications of these changes, including a step-by-step explanation of what the user will see and experience with the updated tool and improved security features to note.

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