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IRS abandons facial recognition program to ID taxpayers

Exterior of the Internal Revenue Service office in midtown New York. (Matthew G. Bisanz/Wikimedia Commons)
February 08, 2022

The Internal Revenue Service announced on Monday that it would “transition away” from the use of a third-party facial recognition service. The discontinuation of the service comes amid pushback from privacy advocates and lawmakers.

The IRS said it used the facial-recognition system “to help authenticate people creating new online accounts.” The IRS said the transition out of using the facial recognition system will take place over the coming weeks “in order to prevent larger disruptions to taxpayers during filing season.”

According to the Associated Press, the IRS had contracted with the third-party service ID.me for the facial recognition effort. While the facial recognition service isn’t required for tax filing or to receive a refund, the IRS announced in November that taxpayers wishing to securely access their tax information would need to sign up for an account with ID.me.

The discontinuation of the facial recognition effort came on the same day Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to the agency, calling on them to stop using the facial recognition service.

“While the IRS had the best of intentions — to prevent criminals from accessing Americans’ tax records, using them to commit identity theft, and make off with other people’s tax refunds,” Wyden wrote, “it is simply unacceptable to force Americans to submit to scans using facial recognition technology as a condition of interacting with the government online, including to access essential government programs.”

Wyden wrote that in addition to privacy and civil liberties concerns, “the
infrastructure that powers digital identity, particularly when used to access government websites, should be run by the government.”

In January, Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the digital rights advocacy group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) said ID.me’s facial recognition service is “biased, error prone, and invasive.”

“We shouldn’t have to forfeit our face just to pay a tax bill. It’s a question of when, not if, this biometric data is hacked, leaked or misused,” Cahn added. “We also have no accountability for when Americans are wrongly blocked by ID.me because the software doesn’t recognize them. When millions of Americans have limited computer connectivity, how will they now be able to access their tax records?”

On Monday, as the IRS announced its decision to abandon the facial recognition service, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said, “The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised. 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.”

Reacting to the IRS’ decision on Monday, Cahn said the agency “made the right call, but it shouldn’t have taken national outrage to stop this.”