IRS walks away from facial recognition to access online tools after backlash

The IRS will transition away from using facial recognition technology to help taxpayers create online accounts with the agency.

The IRS will transition away from using facial recognition technology to help taxpayers create online accounts with the agency.

The IRS announced Monday that it will “quickly develop and bring online an additional authentication process that does not involve facial recognition,” in order for taxpayers to access self-help services on the agency’s website.

“The IRS will also continue to work with its cross-government partners to develop authentication methods that protect taxpayer data and ensure broad access to online tools,” the agency said in a statement.

The IRS changed course after recent criticism from Congress and associations who took issue with the agency’s partnership with the private facial recognition service

The agency launched the new identity verification process in November, which required taxpayers to sign in with an account, or create one.

The process required taxpayers to provide a photo of a government-issued document, including a driver’s license, state ID or passport, then take a “selfie” with a smartphone or computer webcam.

Once verified, taxpayers could access IRS online services, such as the child tax credit portal, their online account or the agency’s “Get Transcript Online” feature. Taxpayers, once logged in, could also request an Identity Protection PIN or access an Online Payment Agreement.

The IRS said would allow taxpayers with existing accounts under the old sign-in process to continue using those credentials through summer 2022.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Monday that the Treasury Department told him it was in the process of having the IRS transition away from using to verify accounts.

Wyden sent a letter earlier Monday, urging the agency to reconsider its use of facial recognition technology, and consider using, a federal identity verification service already used by 40 million Americans for 200 websites from 28 agencies.

Wyden called Treasury and the IRS’ decision to walk away from facial recognition technology a “smart move.”

“I understand the transition process may take time, but I appreciate that the administration recognizes that privacy and security are not mutually exclusive and no one should be forced to submit to facial recognition to access critical government services,” Wyden said.

Last week, lawmakers repeatedly pressed the IRS for more details about its use of facial technology, or demanded the agency pull the plug on its use of these tools.

Last Thursday, 15 Senate Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee told the IRS they were deeply concerned over its partnership with, noting that federal agencies, including the IRS, “have an unfortunate history of data breaches.”

Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent a letter last Thursday urging the IRS to “immediately discontinue” all programs that use any type of biometric data to identify taxpayers.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) also sent a letter to the IRS, asking the agency for more details on how it would protect this sensitive biometric data, and whether it consulted with the Federal Trade Commission or the National Institute of Standards and Technology launching this partnership.

The IT Acquisition Advisory Council, a group of senior executive professionals from government and industry, warned that requiring a selfie from taxpayers to get help online raises privacy concerns, and would create a disadvantage for taxpayers who don’t have access to a smartphone, or who don’t feel comfortable giving their biometric information to a third-party vendor to access government services.

“Not only does this decision create an unprecedented personal privacy issue, but it also allows for the potential of personally identifiable information being harvested and then utilized for commercial for-profit purposes,” the association wrote.

The association also raised concerns about the reliability and dependability of facial recognition technology to verify someone’s identity online. It also urged the IRS to take advantage of, an identity verification platform already used by several agencies.

“The public deserves answers to this legitimate question particularly when is a viable option currently being utilized and a platform where the government is the steward of the personal information that citizens provide as opposed to a 3rd party commercial for-profit company,” the association wrote.

Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.),  Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), in their own letter to the IRS, took issue with the vendor’s inconsistent claims on whether it used “one-to-many face recognition,” which compares a facial image to many other similar images in a database.

“Given these issues, it is simply wrong to compel millions of Americans to place trust in this new protocol,” the lawmakers wrote.

An spokesperson referred to the IRS for “any questions on this issue,” and a Treasury Department spokesperson referred to the IRS’ statement on Monday.

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