IRS backs away from facial recognition Taxpayers seeking access to some information about their taxes were to be required to submit to facial recognition software, a move that has raised privacy concerns.

IRS has second thoughts about selfie requirement

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Internal Revenue Service already has a lot of personal information about American taxpayers. Obviously, they know how much we earn and how much we pay in taxes. So should the IRS also get access to a picture of each of our faces? Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: First of all, let's be clear - the IRS was not requiring that every taxpayer filing their returns submit a selfie. But the agency signed a contract with a private company to verify the IDs of people who wanted to see their past returns or get information about child tax credit payments and a few other things. Still, it was an overreach, says Emily Tucker, director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown Law School.

EMILY TUCKER: The consequences of not agreeing to give up a photo of yourself, which is then stored in a corporate database, which is protected only by that corporation's own easily changeable privacy policies, is that you may not be able to comply with federal tax law under some circumstances.

NAYLOR: The IRS had contracted out the ID verification to a private company called ID.me. They're the ones taxpayers would submit their photos to. And they're the ones who would keep them in their files. Jeramie Scott is senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, known as EPIC. He says one of the problems with outsourcing this information is whether it's kept safe.

JERAMIE SCOTT: What it does is it creates another target for criminals. Obviously, data breaches are a big issue. And, you know, the more areas that sensitive information is, the more likely it will be the target of a data breach.

NAYLOR: ID.me says its data is secure and it does not sell the personal information of its users.

BLAKE HALL: We do not sell data, period. We will never sell data.

NAYLOR: That's Blake Hall, co-founder and CEO of ID.me

HALL: Our mission as a company, the reason we exist, the reason I founded this company, is to put people in charge of their own information and to get it out of the hands of data brokers and credit bureaus, many of which are owned by foreign corporations.

NAYLOR: And the IRS was not alone in using the company. Ten other federal agencies do as well. And a number of states are also using the software to, among other things, check the identities of those applying for unemployment benefits. Emily Tucker says that's a problem.

TUCKER: Federal and state bureaucracies should just not have the power to make the ability to buy groceries or drive a car or pay your taxes, or do the other things you need to do to survive contingent on giving up your biometric information.

NAYLOR: Tucker and other privacy advocates say another problem with facial recognition software is that it's not always accurate, especially in differentiating between whites and people of color. But ID.me's Hall says that while early algorithms were biased, that's no longer the case.

HALL: The question now is not whether they're accurate. They're unbelievably accurate. The question is how they're used.

NAYLOR: Still, there was growing pushback from lawmakers to the IRS' use of ID.me. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, wrote the IRS, urging it reverse its decision to use the company. Hall says the government has some choices to make.

HALL: You can't have everything, you know? If you hate government benefits and identity theft fraud, then you can't be against the selfie. If you hate wait times and long processing things and bad customer service, then you can't hate the gains brought by automation.

NAYLOR: Still, the Treasury Department now says the IRS will be transitioning away from using ID.me to verify its accounts in the coming weeks.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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