The federal government's main standards-setting body is working to establish specifications for electronic benefits transfer.

EBT relies on networks of electronic terminals or automated teller machines to distribute government benefits. Recipients are given plastic cards for access to funds that were traditionally delivered by check.

A committee within the American National Standards Institute has met to establish a standardized way for messages to be passed from card to terminal, terminal to card, and terminal to terminal.

The committee, known as the EBT Committee, was formed under the auspices of the Accredited Standards Committee, X9-Financial Services, as a result of the federal government's implementation of a national EBT initiative.

The financial services committee wishes to adopt a standard for the food stamp program within the existing commercial infrastructure. It looked to the 1987 version of ISO Standard 8583, "Financial Transaction Card Originated Messages-Interchange Message Specifications."

Based on this standard, the group, working in conjunction with consulting firm KPMG Peat Marwick, laid out new message formats that move through the system as a transaction passes from acquirer to issuer and back to acquirer.

The group says this mechanism for communication allows EBT providers, the committee, and third-party processors of EBT transactions to have more efficient processing, while providing a strong safeguard against fraud.

Because the messaging standard formats are so new, it was recommended that the EBT messages be accepted as an American National Draft Standard for Trial Use. This will enable the industry to test, use, and make adjustments to the base message before agreeing to a final standard. ASC-X9 expects the standard to be updated in six months, with a final ANSI standard in one year.

The EBT Committee also plans to focus on message certification and will develop a technical guideline to support new EBT operations while continuing to build consensus in the industry.

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