IRS to end ID.me facial recognition effort after widespread backlash

The IRS confirmed on Monday that it would not be moving forward with efforts to require the use of ID.me for certain tax processes.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced on Monday afternoon that it will no longer be using ID.me facial recognition software, adding in a statement that it will "transition away from using a third-party service for facial recognition to help authenticate people creating new online accounts." 

The agency said the transition will take place over the coming weeks "in order to prevent larger disruptions to taxpayers during filing season." The IRS plans to create "an additional authentication process" that does not involve any form of facial recognition and will work with other agencies on the effort. 

"The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. "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."

The statement comes after an avalanche of criticism directed toward the IRS from privacy activists as well as Democrats and Republicans in Congress

This morning, two separate groups of Democrats sent letters demanding an end to the IRS use of ID.me's facial recognition. One congressman introduced legislation that would ban the IRS from using facial recognition at all on Friday. The IRS has defended itself by arguing facial recognition was needed to deal with fraud. 

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. 

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.

In November, 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.

Several civil rights groups -- including Fight for the Future, Algorithmic Justice League, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and others -- started a protest movement last week designed to stop the IRS plan.

Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future, said the IRS' plan to use facial recognition on people who are trying to access their tax information online "was a profound threat to everyone's security and civil liberties." 

Seeley George noted that despite the news, several other agencies use ID.me facial recognition. The company's facial recognition tools are 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.

"We're glad to see that grassroots activism and backlash from lawmakers and experts has forced the agency to back down. But several other Federal agencies are still using ID.me's discriminatory and insecure software, including the Veterans Affairs Administration and Social Security Administration, as well as 30 states that use it on people trying to access unemployment benefits," she said.

"No one should be coerced into handing over their sensitive biometric information to the government in order to access essential services. The lawmakers who led the charge against the IRS use of this technology should immediately call for an end to other agencies' contracts, and there should be a full investigation into the Federal government's use of facial recognition and how it came to spend taxpayer dollars contracting with a company as shady as ID.me."

Editorial standards