IRS drops plan to subject website users to facial recognition

The IRS said Monday it was abandoning its drive to use facial recognition technology on taxpayers, after a massive bipartisan pushback from senior lawmakers who called the idea a privacy and security disaster.

Agency officials said the move was intended to protect taxpayers who wanted to see their tax records, giving the agency a way to weed out scammers.

But the IRS’ record of computer problems and the fact that a third party was involved in running the service left Democrats and Republicans furious at the idea.

“The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said. “Everyone should feel comfortable with how their personal information is secured, and we are quickly looking at short-term options that don’t involve facial recognition.”

The IRS said the transition will occur “over the next few weeks” as the agency tries to handle the current tax filing season without major disruptions.

Taxpayers were able to file their returns electronically and pay their bills without having to submit to technology. But those registering to access their old IRS records had to be asked to register with ID.me, a private provider, for verification.

One possible method of verifying identity was to submit a “selfie” video, lawmakers said.

“The IRS has unilaterally decided to allow an outside contractor to act as a gatekeeper between citizens and needed government services,” a group of Republican senators wrote in a letter to the IRS last week.

They pointed to the government’s poor track record on private information.

The Office of Personnel Management has seen millions of files containing extremely sensitive personal information hacked. And the IRS itself is regularly targeted. In 2019, the agency estimated that it faced 1.4 billion cyberattacks per year.

In 2015, the IRS revealed it had been successfully breached in what became known as the “Get Transcript” hack.

The hackers were able to match someone’s personal information, such as a Social Security number and date of birth, as well as some taxpayer information, to access their records of partial interactions with the IRS.

Lawmakers said they understood the IRS’ desire to find technology to prevent these kinds of outages, but said facial recognition software was not the right way to do it.

“The Treasury Department made the smart decision,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

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