IRS says it will back away from facial recognition amid outcry

The decision comes hours after mounting political pressure.

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: The Internal Revenue Service headquarters building appeared to be mostly empty April 27, 2020 in the Federal Triangle section of Washington, DC. The IRS called about 10,000 volunteer employees back to work Monday at 10 of its mission critical locations to work on taxpayer correspondence, handling tax documents, taking telephone calls and other actions related to the tax filing season. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It didn't take long for the Internal Revenue Service to respond to pressure to drop facial recognition. The agency has told Senator Ron Wyden it plans to back away from using facial recognition for verification purposes. Wyden cautioned the transition would "take time," but he saw this as evidence the Biden administration knew privacy and security weren't "mutually exclusive" concepts. The New York Times understood the shift would take place over weeks to minimize disruptions to tax filing season.

We've asked ID.me, the company slated to provide facial recognition to the IRS, for comment. Under the plan, the IRS would have used the technology to authenticate users hoping to file taxes online or otherwise use the IRS' internet services. The approach was intended as a fraud prevention tool, and would have been available by the summer.

The about-face comes after a wave of recent political pressure. While the Treasury Department was already reconsidering the use of facial recognition tech at the IRS, the service encountered opposition from Republican senators, House Democrats and civil liberties groups concerned about a range of issues. They've been worried about the privacy of uploading sensitive data, historical biases in facial recognition, susceptibility to cyberattacks, inaccessibility to people without broadband and a lack of audits and other forms of accountability. Wyden sent a letter to the IRS mere hours before the organization signalled its change of heart.

Commissioner Rettig said the IRS was exploring "short-term options" to replace facial recognition. It's already developing another verification process. Whatever the replacement may be, this should represent a significant victory for those hoping to ban federal uses of facial recognition. Although this might not lead to a total ban, it could prompt other government institutions to limit or resist uses of the technology.

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