House Democrats join senators in urging the IRS to end ID.me facial recognition plan

More Democrats have announced opposition to the IRS plan after Senate Republicans sent a letter demanding more information from the government agency.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

Multiple members of Congress have come out against a plan from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to incorporate facial recognition provider ID.me into its processes this summer. 

The White House continues to ignore requests for comment, but Congressman Ted Lieu, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and Congresswoman Yvette Clarke sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig on Monday demanding the agency "halt its plan to employ facial recognition technology and consult with a wide variety of stakeholders before deciding on an alternative." 

"Any government agency operating a face recognition technology system -- or contracting with a third party -- creates potential risks of privacy violations and abuse. We urge the IRS to halt this plan and consult with a wide variety of stakeholders before deciding on an alternative," the Congress members wrote. 

Like the letter sent by numerous Senate Republicans last week, the House members question the new biometric requirements that will be necessary for accessing a wide array of vital tools the IRS provides. They note the cybersecurity ramifications of the IRS partnership with ID.me as well as the racial implications of using a flawed technology for IRS services. 

An ID.me spokesperson even told The Washington Post that there was "variation across demographic groups and skin color" with its facial recognition algorithm, additionally claiming that the variations are "incredibly small."

Questions were also raised by House members about the IRS process that led to ID.me being chosen as well as ID.me's previous lies about its technology

"Furthermore, the IRS's Privacy Impact Assessment neglects to mention ID.me is even using this technology on Americans. Given these issues, it is simply wrong to compel millions of Americans to place trust in this new protocol," the letter said. 

On Monday morning, Senator Ron Wyden released his own letter calling for an end to the IRS plan. Wyden acknowledged the IRS goal of stopping fraud through the facial recognition effort but said it is "simply unacceptable to force Americans to submit to scans using facial recognition technology as a condition of interacting with the government online." 

"It is also alarming that the IRS and so many other government agencies have outsourced their core technology infrastructure to the private sector. Quite simply, the infrastructure that powers digital identify, particularly when used to access government websites, should be run by the government," Wyden said. 

The senator went on to question why the IRS and other agencies were not using Login.gov instead of ID.me, adding that the federal government needs to expand the effort internally to create a product that could match faces to photos held by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Administration. 

"The IRS should redouble its efforts to remind taxpayers that facial recognition scanning is not now and has never been necessary to file taxes or receive a refund, as well as educate taxpayers on ways to access other IRS services without the use of facial recognition technology," Wyden said. 

"Second, as a stopgap measure, the IRS should promptly revert its decision to require use of ID.me to transact online through the IRS' website, delay the phase out of IRS.gov accounts created prior to the implementation of ID.me and restore the ability of taxpayers to create new IRS.gov accounts, which foes not use facial recognition. And finally, in the longer term, the IRS should migrate away from third-party identity verification services and utilize GSA's government-wide login-gov service."

Senators Roy Blunt and Jeff Merkley sent their own letter last week making many of the same requests of the IRS. 

In November, the the IRS announced that by the summer of this year, taxpayers will need to have an ID.me account in order to access certain IRS online resources. 

In order to check on the status of a return, view balances and payments received, obtain a transcript, and enter into an online payment agreement, people will need to create an ID.me account and give the private company either a government ID, passport, birth certificate, W-2 form, social security card, a bill of some kind, or a "selfie," among a host of other private documents they may ask for. 

The IRS signed an $86 million contract with ID.me, according to the Washington Post. More than 70 million Americans who filed for unemployment insurance, pandemic assistance grants, child tax credit payments, or other services have already had their faces scanned.

Since the IRS announced the effort in November, there has been widespread backlash within Congress and among privacy advocates who continue to raise several issues with the effort. 

The Washington Post reported on Monday that IRS officials met with members of Congress on Friday and said they were looking into alternatives to ID.me that would not use facial recognition. 

ID.me is already used by 27 states for their unemployment benefits systems, according to CyberScoop, while 30 states and 10 federal agencies also use the system for other government services. 

Fight for the Future, Algorithmic Justice League, EPIC, and other civil rights organizations launched a website last week -- called Dump ID.me -- allowing people to sign a petition against the IRS plan. According to Fox Business, Rep. Bill Huizenga introduced a bill on Friday that bans the IRS from using any facial recognition in its processes. 

Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future, said the legislative response has shown that this is a bipartisan issue. 

"Facial recognition technology and the collection of peoples' biometric data puts everyone in danger. I also think that in addition to the IRS (and other government agencies) canceling its contract with ID.me, there are a number of questions that legislators have sent to the IRS about how it landed on this tool," Seeley George said. 

"It's critical that we get answers to these questions, and hopefully use them to drive forward legislation to rein in the use of facial recognition and other biometric tools moving forward."

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