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Taxpayers can opt out of facial recognition this year, IRS says

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The Internal Revenue Service on Monday said that taxpayers may now opt out of using facial recognition technology for identity verification when they sign up for an IRS online account this year.

Anyone who wants to access their online accounts can instead verify their identity during "a live, virtual interview" with an agent from the company ID.me, the IRS said. "No biometric data – including facial recognition – will be required if taxpayers choose to authenticate their identity through a virtual interview."

Earlier this month, the agency said it would transition away from using a third-party facial recognition service to authenticate new online accounts after lawmakers and privacy advocates expressed outrage at the program.

The original idea was to have users sign into the IRS website and present a government document with a photo, along with a selfie, to verify their identity to access tax information. But privacy advocates warned that facial recognition technology is flawed and has been shown to be biased against certain racial minorities. Others noted that having a third party handle taxpayer data could create security concerns.

"I’m very disturbed that Americans may have to submit to a facial recognition system, wait on hold for hours, or both, to access personal data on the IRS website. While e-filing returns remain unaffected, I’m pushing the IRS for greater transparency on this plan," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said on Jan. 20 after the IRS debuted its ID.me partnership.

Though the government had awarded an $86 million contract to ID.me to set up the facial recognition system, the IRS said on Feb. 8 that the third-party program would evetually be abandoned.

"Taxpayers will still have the option to verify their identity automatically through the use of biometric verification through ID.me’s self-assistance tool if they choose," the IRS said Monday. "For taxpayers who select this option, new requirements are in place to ensure images provided by taxpayers are deleted for the account being created."

Taxpayers who already created an IRS account and submitted selfies to ID.me for verification can be assured their pictures will be "permanently deleted" over the next few weeks, the agency added.

Monday's announcement was described as a "short-term solution" that will let taxpayers file this year as the IRS develops a different authentication tool called Login.Gov. Login.gov is a secure sign in service used to sign in to participating government agencies. It is currently used to apply for federal jobs, TSA PreCheck, small business loans, disaster assistance, and more.

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