Privacy advocates are hoping that their recent victory over the IRS will mark a shift in the ongoing battle over facial recognition. The IRS had originally announced that it would be making biometric identity verification through ID.me mandatory for people accessing accounts online, but backtracked in response to intense criticism from lawmakers and the general public.
The Algorithmic Justice League, Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the ACLU are some of the many organizations claiming partial credit for that outcome. The civil rights activists collected signatures for a petition that asked the IRS to stop using facial recognition at the DumpID.me website. They also organized extensive letter-writing campaigns to put pressure on federal lawmakers and any government agencies using the technology.
There is now evidence to suggest that those efforts are starting to pay dividends. The IRS is still pushing ID.me for the time being, though it has promised to continue offering support for non-biometric identity verification options, and to implement the federal government’s non-biometric Login.Gov single sign-on platform at the end of the current tax season.
Other agencies are now following suit, with the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance indicating that it will end its use of ID.me in the weeks ahead. The Department was one of dozens of state unemployment agencies that adopted ID.me to fight unemployment fraud during the pandemic, and while the agency argues that the platform was useful for that purpose, it now believes that the threat has passed and that there is an opportunity to re-evaluate its use of facial recognition tech.
The story is similar at the federal level, where the US Patent and Trademark Office and the Department of Veteran Affairs are both reconsidering their relationships with ID.me. Meanwhile, letters to Congress prompted 15 Republican Senators to express concerns (and ask more probing questions) about the ID.me and IRS program, while Senators Roy Blunt and Jeff Merkley have introduced a bill that would bar the agency from using any form of facial recognition. Algorithmic Justice League Founder and Executive Director Joy Buolamwini has sent a separate letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The sheer scope of that response has given privacy advocates cause for optimism. Many municipal governments have implemented bans on a local level, but efforts to legislate facial recognition have yet to gain significant traction on Capitol Hill. The pushback against the IRS indicates suggests that momentum is finally building for national privacy protections.
“This is one of many important wins to come, and I think everyone really has to ask, ‘What kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want the face to be the final frontier of privacy?’” asked Buolamwini. “What excites me is the answer isn’t written in stone. It’s up to us.”
The goal, for civil rights defenders, is to stop the use of facial recognition technology before it becomes normalized. Doing so will be much easier said than done, especially given the proliferation of facial recognition systems in both the public and the private sector.
Source: CNN Business
March 8, 2022 – by Eric Weiss