Following weeks of public outcry and criticism from privacy advocates, the Internal Revenue Service has announced that it will phase out ID.me’s controversial face recognition identification verification software.
Beginning this summer, customers wanting to access their IRS account online would be required to provide facial recognition scans via ID.me’s third-party identity verification services. According to the IRS and ID.me, this method would have reduced fraud. Meanwhile, ID.me has been re-examined when CEO Blake Hall confessed that the firm did run user face scans against a database of faces in some cases, which they hadn’t previously disclosed.
Civil liberties organisations, privacy experts, and lawmakers have all called for the IRS to reconsider its connection with ID.me in the weeks since. The agency paid attention.
In a statement, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig stated, “The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised.” “Everyone should feel secure about how their personal information is protected, and we’re working on short-term alternatives to facial recognition right now.”
The reversal comes less than a year after the Treasury Department awarded ID.me a $86 million contract. ID.me declined to reply in an email and advised Gizmodo to direct any questions to the IRS.
“As I requested earlier today, the Treasury Department has directed the IRS to shift away from using the controversial ID.me verification service,” Oregon Senator and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said in a statement following the announcement. “I understand that the transition will take time, but I appreciate that the administration understands that privacy and security are not mutually exclusive, and that no one should be compelled to submit to facial recognition in order to access important government services.”
The IRS’s decision was also applauded by privacy advocates. “We’re relieved to see that grassroots activism and backlash from lawmakers and experts caused the agency to back down,” says Fight for the Future’s Campaign Director. Caitlin Seeley George told Gizmodo in an email. “No one should be forced to provide the government their sensitive biometric information in order to gain access to important services.”
The IRS’s decision was also applauded by the Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Board, Albert Fox Cahn, who said that the reversal shouldn’t have taken this long. “In the first place, the IRS should not have looked at this technology.” In an emailed statement, Fox Cahn stated. “Facial recognition is skewed, prone to errors, and intrusive.” We should never have to put our faces on the line just to pay our taxes. When government agencies adopt this technology, the question isn’t if, but when, biometric data will be hacked, leaked, or exploited.”
The IRS’s decision came just hours after Wyden penned a letter to the IRS commissioner requesting the agency to stop using facial recognition technology. In his letter, Wyden voiced concern about the technology’s well-documented inability to reliably identify women and people of color, saying it was “unacceptable” to “force Americans to submit to facial recognition technology scans as a condition of interacting with the government online.”
That comment echoed a letter from Republican senators on the Finance Committee, who urged the IRS to cease its partnership with ID.me.
The senators wrote, “There is substantial evidence to be extremely worried about an IRS contractor’s ability to safely manage, gather, and keep this unprecedented volume of secret, personal data.” “Millions of Americans must choose between paying the price of handing over their most personal information, biometric data, to an outside contractor and returning to the era of a paper-driven bureaucracy, where information moves slowly, is inaccurate, and is processed in ways that some would argue are incompatible with modern life.”
According to Seeley George of Fight for the Future, the effort may now shift to other federal agencies and at least 30 states that have collaborated with ID.me. “The lawmakers who led the charge against the IRS’s use of this technology should immediately call for an end to other agencies’ contracts, and a full investigation into the Federal government’s use of facial recognition and how it came to contract with a company as shady as ID.me,” the activist said.
Meanwhile, Olga Akselrod, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, said that other agencies should follow the IRS’s lead and stop forcing people to provide biometric data in order to access government services.
“A discriminating system that further erodes privacy and exacerbates the ills of the digital divide cannot be the solution to the security challenges generated by internet access points,” Akselrod told Gizmodo. “In order to get government services, people should not be obliged to hand up their sensitive biometric data to a commercial corporation.” “This is the end of the story.”
The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project’s Fox Cahn reiterated this sentiment, saying, “We see a nationwide consensus opposing facial recognition technology.” “However, while Americans were correct in opposing the IRS proposal, they were incorrect in ignoring how we scan those claiming for unemployment insurance and other benefits.” No one should have to give up their biometric data in order to get what they’re legally entitled to.”