IRS logo with facial recognition dots covering it

Illustration by Max Fleishman

IRS will ‘transition away’ from facial recognition plan amid widespread criticism

The plan attracted criticism from lawmakers and activists.


Andrew Wyrich


Posted on Feb 7, 2022   Updated on Feb 9, 2022, 2:24 pm CST

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said it would “transition away” from its plan to use facial recognition software as it faced immense pushback from lawmakers and privacy experts.

The decision from the IRS came shortly after Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called it “simply unacceptable” in a letter to the agency on Monday. Numerous other lawmakers and activists criticized the plan.

Late last month, the Washington Post reported that the IRS had entered into an agreement with the company to force Americans to use its facial recognition software to access their accounts with the government agency.

Facial recognition software has faced immense scrutiny over the past several years, with critics pointing out not just the privacy and surveillance implications of the technology, but also its documented racial bias.

The IRS agreement with likewise has faced pushback, including from advocacy groups and privacy experts. Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called on the agency to scrap its plans. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) wrote a letter to the IRS, calling the plan “disturbing.”

Similarly, Wyden urged the IRS to “reverse” its plan to work with in his letter on Monday.

“While the IRS had the best of intentions—to prevent criminals from accessing Americans’ tax records, using them to commit identity theft, and make off with other people’s tax refunds—it is simply unacceptable to force Americans to submit to scans using facial recognition technology as a condition of interacting with the government online, including to access essential government programs,” Wyden wrote to Charles Rettig, the commissioner of the IRS. “Furthermore, many facial recognition technologies are biased in ways that negatively impact vulnerable groups, including people of color, women, and seniors.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) also wrote a letter to Rettig on Monday, citing many of the same concerns as Wyden did. They urged the IRS to halt its plans and “consult with a wide variety of stakeholders before deciding on an alternative.”

The lawmakers also asked the IRS to answer a number of questions including what review process it went through to ensure that the database would be operating wouldn’t be vulnerable to a data breach, and how people without reliable broadband access would be able to access the IRS resources, among numerous other things.

As the pressure mounted, the IRS announced on Monday afternoon that it would “transition away” from using facial recognition from “over the coming weeks,” according to the Washington Post and New York Times.

“The I.R.S. takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised,” Rettig said in a statement, according to the Times. “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 IRS added that it would not be using facial recognition as part of its authentication process.

Last year, a coalition of public interest and civil rights groups urged President Joe Biden to use executive action to halt the use of facial recognition technology by the government.

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*First Published: Feb 7, 2022, 2:42 pm CST