Reversing Course, IRS Retreats From Facial Recognition

Faced with a growing backlash by lawmakers and privacy advocates, the Internal Revenue Service has backed away from a plan to require people to upload photos of themselves in order to access online information about their tax accounts.

"The IRS takes taxpayer privacy and security seriously, and we understand the concerns that have been raised," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig stated Monday.

The IRS's now-scuttled plan involved requiring people to submit government-issued identifications, such as drivers' licenses, along with selfies to -- a third-party commercial vendor -- in order to access some tax documents. (People would still have been able to file taxes online without providing photographs of themselves.)

The IRS publicly retreated from the plan shortly after Senator Ron Wyden (R-Oregon) told the agency it would be “unacceptable” to proceed with its planned use of facial recognition.

“While the IRS had the best of intentions -- to prevent criminals from accessing Americans' tax records, using them to commit identity theft, and make off with other people's refunds -- it is simply unacceptable to force Americans to submit to scans using facial recognition technology as a condition of interacting with the government online,” Wyden said Monday in a letter to Rettig.

Wyden wasn't the only government official to criticize the plan.

Federal Trade Commissioner Christine Wilson urged Wyden, along with Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) to investigate the IRS's plan.

“Federal auditing rules require to store the biometric data for at least seven years, according to the news report, but no legislation governs how can use this biometric data,” Wilson said in a letter to lawmakers. “And malicious actors could hack the database and use the biometric data for nefarious purposes.”

Senators Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) were among other lawmakers who also criticized the IRS over its planned deployment of facial recognition technology.

The advocacy group Fight for the Future, which helped organize an online petition against the government's use of facial-recognition technology, said it was glad the IRS backtracked, but noted that other agencies still use's software.

“No one should be coerced into handing over their sensitive biometric information to the government in order to access essential services,” the group stated Monday.

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