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IRS 'Looking Into' Alternatives to Face-Scanning After Privacy Complaints - and Long Wait Times

Saturday January 29, 2022. 04:34 PM , from Slashdot
Last week America's Internal Revenue Service announced a live-video-feed verification of taxpayer's faces would be required by this summer access online tax service. But now the Washington Post reports that 'complaints of confusing instructions and long wait times to complete the sign-up have caused an unknown number to abandon the process in frustration.'

'The $86 million contract with the IRS also has alarmed researchers and privacy advocates who say they worry about how Americans' facial images and personal data will be safeguarded in the years to come.'

There is no federal law regulating how the data can be used or shared. While the IRS couldn't say what percentage of taxpayers use the agency's website, internal data show it is one of the federal government's most-viewed websites, with more than 1.9 billion visits last year. The partnership with has drawn anger from some members of Congress, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who tweeted that he was 'very disturbed' by the plan and would push the IRS for 'greater transparency.' Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) called it 'a very, very bad idea by the IRS' that would 'further weaken Americans' privacy.' The Senate Finance Committee is working to schedule briefings with the IRS and on the issue, a committee aide said.... 'No one should be forced to submit to facial recognition as a condition of accessing essential government services,' Wyden said in a separate statement. 'I'm continuing to seek more information about and other identity verification systems being used by federal agencies.'

A Treasury official said Friday that the department was 'looking into' alternatives to, saying Treasury and the IRS always are interested in improving 'taxpayers experience....'

About 70 million Americans who have filed for unemployment insurance, pandemic assistance grants, child tax credit payments or other services already have been scanned by the McLean, Va.-based company, which says its client list includes 540 companies; 30 states, including California, Florida, New York and Texas; and 10 federal agencies, including Social Security, Labor and Veterans Affairs.... Equifax, the credit-reporting company that previously confirmed taxpayers' data for the IRS, had its $7 million contract suspended in 2017 after hackers exposed the personal information of 148 million people...

[] says 9 of 10 applicants can verify their identity through a self-service face scan in five minutes or less. Anyone who hits a snag is funneled into the backup video-chat verification process...But some who have tried to verify their identities through for other purposes have reported agonizing delays: cryptic glitches in Colorado, website errors in Arizona, five-hour waits in North Carolina, days-long waits in California and weeks-long benefit delays in New York. The security blogger Brian Krebs wrote last week that he faced a three-hour wait trying to confirm his IRS account, three months before the tax-filing deadline.... The company said it intends to expand its workforce beyond the 966 agents who now handle video-chat verification for the entire country. It has also opened hundreds of in-person identity-verification centers — replicating, in essence, what government offices have done for decades.
The article also points out that advertising is also a key part of's operation, with people signing up through their web site asked if they want to subscribe to 'offers and discounts' — though the company stresses people do have to opt in. And in addition, the article adds, 'If a person is using to confirm their identity with a government agency, the company will not use that verification information for 'marketing or promotional purposes,' the company's privacy policy says.'

But a senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center complained to the Post that 'We haven't even gone the step of putting regulations in place and deciding if facial recognition should even be used like this. We're just skipping right to the use of a technology that has clearly been shown to be dangerous and has issues with accuracy, disproportionate impact, privacy and civil liberties.'

A spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department also told Bloomberg News 'that any taxpayer who does not want to use can opt against filing his or her taxes online.'
'We believe in the importance of protecting the privacy of taxpayers, while also ensuring criminals are not able to gain access to taxpayer accounts,' LaManna added, arguing that it's been 'impossible' for the IRS to develop its own cutting-edge identification program because of 'the lack of funding for IRS modernization.'

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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