IRS Drops facial recognition program used to verify identities

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This week, the IRS decided to scrap the controversial ID.me program that required users to upload a video selfie to create a new IRS account in order to access government services. The decision comes following a bipartisan backlash to the program, prompted by privacy concerns. Concerns about bias in AI-based facial recognition software also played a role.

In a statement posted on the IRS.gov website, the agency said, “The IRS has announced that it will stop using a third-party facial recognition service to help authenticate people creating new online accounts. The transition will take place over the next few weeks to avoid greater disruption for taxpayers during filing season. The current program requires people wanting to create a new IRS account to upload a photo ID, such as a passport or driver’s license, and a video selfie. These are then compared by facial recognition software made by Amazon called Rekognition, according to Ars Technica. Once the two photos have been compared and confirmed, the software then uses a “one-to-many” comparison, checking an identity against its own database of selfies to see if a person is trying to register multiple identities. If an ID is flagged as potentially fraudulent, the applicant will be required to have a video ID chat with a verification team, according to the ID.me blog.

The ID.me process for identity confirmation. (Picture: ID.me)

One of the issues that has caused controversy is that the government does not have its own identity verification system, so it has outsourced the process to ID.me as a third party. This has raised concerns among privacy advocates about sensitive personal information being stored on non-government servers and in the cloud. Additionally, Amazon’s Rekognition software has previously been shown to be inaccurate when attempting to identify people of color. This led to Amazon announcing that it would no longer sell its facial recognition software to law enforcement in 2020, as incorrect identification in this scenario could lead to wrongful arrest. Another controversial aspect of the program is that ID.me has previously stated that it only uses one-to-one matching, meaning it only compares the two photos. Later, he revealed that he was actually using one-to-many matching, which was quite the flip. This sparked widespread concern about how ID.me was actually running the program and whether it complied with IRS privacy rules.

The government has started researching new methods to securely verify people’s identities. “The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement. “Everyone should feel comfortable with how their personal information is secured, and we are quickly looking at short-term options that don’t involve facial recognition.”

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Ryan H. Bowman