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IRS reverses plans on facial recognition

Updated: Feb. 7, 2022 at 11:56 AM CST
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The Internal Revenue Service is halting a plan that would have required taxpayers to verify their identities with facial recognition software before signing on to its website following backlash from lawmakers and privacy groups.

The IRS said in a statement Monday that it will “transition away from using a third-party verification service involving facial recognition.” The IRS said it will bring online an “additional authentication process” that doesn’t use facial recognition technology, and work with other partners in government to come up with ways to authenticate taxpayers that “protect taxpayer data and ensure broad access to online tools.” It did not explain what that authentication process will include.

“The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised,” said IRS commissioner Chuck Rettig. “Everyone should feel comfortable with how their personal information is secured, and we are quickly pursuing short-term options that do not involve facial recognition.”

The reversal, which comes as tax season is underway, hints at public discomfort around the expanded use of facial recognition technology in our daily lives and could raise questions about other parts of government that rely on the same private company as the IRS for verification purposes. It also raises questions about whether other government agencies will pull back on their own use of facial recognition software more broadly as the technology has been widely used across the US government for years.

The IRS had previously planned to require a new verification process for logging in to its website starting this summer, which would include taking a picture of a photo ID, like a driver’s license or passport, and then taking a video selfie with a smartphone or computer so software could compare the two.

It was part of a partnership the IRS has with ID.me, a fast-growing company that uses facial recognition software as part of its identity-verification process. ID.me also verifies identities for 30 states’ unemployment agencies, as well as a growing number of US federal agencies, including Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration.

Once a user had been authenticated via ID.me, they would be able to sign on to the IRS’s website to request an online tax transcript or see information regarding tax payments or economic impact payments. The process had been optional for those who already had an IRS username and password, but those were set to stop working this summer.

The IRS used ID.me in a more limited capacity last year, verifying people who wanted to opt out of receiving advance child tax credit payments. In November, the IRS announced it was expanding this verification process for all logins, but the move gained attention and scrutiny from privacy advocates as tax season begins and millions of people visit the agency’s site.

The federal government has no rules regulating the use of facial recognition software, but the technology has come under fire from privacy groups, who oppose it for privacy issues and other potential dangers. For instance, it has been shown to be less accurate when identifying people of color, and several Black men, at least, have been wrongfully arrested due to the use of facial recognition.

In the past week, more than half a dozen members of Congress, including Sens. Ron Wyden, Roy Blunt and Jeff Merkley, wrote letters to the IRS, asking it to stop using facial recognition software for user verification.

“I understand the transition process may take time,” Wyden said in a statement Monday, “but I appreciate that the administration recognizes that privacy and security are not mutually exclusive and no one should be forced to submit to facial recognition to access critical government services.”

In response to a request for comment, an ID.me spokesperson referred reporters to the IRS. The company has said in the past that an internal test of hundreds of faces of people who failed to pass its facial recognition check did not show statistically significant evidence of racial bias.

Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director for Fight for the Future, which had been one of several privacy-oriented groups asking people to sign a petition urging the government to stop using ID.me, called the move “great news.”

“We also want all of this energy to continue,” she said, “to ensure that other agencies like the VA and the Social Security Administration, as well as states using ID.me for unemployment benefits, end their contracts and commit to finding options that protect peoples’ privacy and rights.”