US tax agency drops facial recognition plan after criticism

The Internal Revenue Service had put forth the authentication system as a security measure, but said it will stop, following a chorus of privacy concerns. PHOTO: PIXABAY

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US national tax authority announced on Monday (Feb 7) that it will stop using facial recognition software to verify taxpayers' identities when they create online accounts, following a chorus of privacy concerns.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials had put forth the authentication system as a security measure following years of growing fears over online scams and identity theft, but the programme ended up also prompting worries.

The initiative involved identity verification company, which won a nearly US$90 million (S$121 million) contract to make taxpayers' accounts more secure.

The IRS said "it will transition away from using a third-party service for facial recognition to help authenticate people creating new online accounts".

"The IRS will quickly develop and bring online an additional authentication process that does not involve facial recognition," it said, as the agency faces staffing shortages and significant backlogs. referred all questions on the matter to IRS and offered no other comment.

Criticism has built of the programme since it was announced last year, with privacy watchdogs and lawmakers both raising questions.

"While the IRS had the best of intentions - to prevent criminals from accessing Americans' tax records... - it is simply unacceptable to force Americans to submit to scans," Senator Ron Wyden wrote.

"It is also alarming that the IRS and so many government agencies have outsourced their core technology infrastructure to the private sector," he added.

Facial recognition software has been criticised on several fronts, including that it was developed on predominantly white populations and thus makes more errors on people of colour.

Rights watchdogs have accused the technology of reproducing the human biases already present in society, such as racism.

Under pressure from watchdogs, major firms such as Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Google have stopped, at least temporarily, selling their facial recognition software to police forces.

Social media giant Facebook announced in November the shutting down of its long-criticised facial recognition system and deleting of scan data on a billion people.

Facebook facial identification launched in 2010 and went through changes to tighten privacy, but still was central to a significant lawsuit and regulatory scrutiny.

The social network agreed in 2020 to a US$650 million payout after failing to win dismissal of a case alleging it illegally collected biometric information for "face tagging" in violation of a 2008 Illinois privacy law.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.