US tax body looks away from facial recognition amid privacy concerns

8 Feb 2022

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Following bipartisan criticism, the IRS said it will ‘transition away’ from the use of third-party facial recognition technology.

The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the federal body responsible for collecting taxes, said yesterday (7 February) that it is ending the use of facial recognition technology to authenticate users creating online accounts.

It follows bipartisan calls to stop the IRS from using a third-party facial recognition service provided by ID.me.

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The US treasury department awarded an $86m contract to the company last year to bring in a system that would require taxpayers to upload video selfies to access their account online. But lawmakers raised concerns over the privacy implications.

The IRS has now said that it will “transition away” from the facial recognition service in the coming weeks “to prevent larger disruptions to taxpayers during filing season” in the US. It will replace facial recognition with an alternative means of authentication for the short term.

Chuck Rettig, IRS commissioner, said that the statutory body takes the privacy and security of taxpayers seriously. “We understand the concerns that have been raised. Everyone should feel comfortable with how their personal information is secured,” he said.

In the long term, the IRS said it is working with cross-government partners to develop new authentication tools that do not involve facial recognition but still “protect taxpayer data and ensure broad access to online tools”.

Concerns have been raised over facial recognition technology with regards to data privacy, as well as accuracy and racial bias.

US Senate finance committee chair Ron Wyden was one of many who called on the IRS to end the use of facial recognition for online accounts, arguing that “Americans should not have to sacrifice their privacy for security”.

“The government can treat Americans with respect and dignity while protecting against fraud and identity theft. The IRS should take immediate steps to address the many valid concerns that have been raised by taxpayers about its use of facial recognition technology,” he said in a letter to Rettig.

Wyden noted that because the IRS does not use facial recognition for tax filing or receiving funds, it should not require facial recognition “for any of the other important services it provides taxpayers”.

In the EU, MEPs called for a ban on facial recognition databases and biometric mass surveillance tech last October, after appeals from regulators, campaigners and privacy advocacy groups.

In November, Meta gave in to growing regulatory pressure and announced that it will delete face recognition data from more than 1bn Facebook users that was collected over a decade.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com