The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said on Feb. 21 that it will allow taxpayers to opt out of using facial recognition technology to verify their identity and access online accounts, and at the same time will work to roll out login.gov as its long-term authentication solution.

The agency’s about-face on facial recognition technology follows the recent uproar from lawmakers and digital rights activists over the agency’s plans to require facial recognition verification to access tax information. IRS announced earlier this month it would transition away from using facial recognition technology provider ID.me to verify IRS.gov accounts.

The IRS announced on Monday that taxpayers will have the option of verifying their identity during a live, virtual interview with agents, and said that “no biometric data including facial recognition will be required if taxpayers choose to authenticate their identity through a virtual interview.”

However, the IRS will still preserve the option of using biometric verification through self-assistance tools on ID.me.

“For taxpayers who pick this option, new requirements are in place to ensure images are deleted and any existing biometric data will permanently be deleted over the next few weeks,” the IRS said in a statement.

The IRS said its new policy announced this week is a short-term solution for this year’s filing season.

For a more enduring fix, the IRS will work closely with partners across the government to roll out Login.Gov as a long-term authentication tool. The General Services Administration is currently working with the IRS to achieve the security standards and scale required of Login.Gov, with a goal of introducing this option after the 2022 filing deadline.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have demanded that the agency respond to privacy concerns regarding use of biometric data. The IRS is not the only agency to face backlash for the use of facial recognition verification. House and Senate leaders have urged the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Interior to stop using facial recognition technology.

Separately, a group of Democratic House and Senate leaders, led by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., petitioned the IRS in Feb. 17 letters to take action to address a backlog of tax returns and improve customer service during the current tax filing season.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the long-term solution to ensure the IRS can manage its workload and provide timely and high-quality service to taxpayers lies in additional resources to hire and train employees across several departments and modernize technologies. But, “those investments will take time, and taxpayers require more immediate relief, especially with the 2022 filing season already underway,” the lawmakers stated in the letter.

Additionally, lawmakers urged the IRS to consider the following policies to address the backlog of cases:

  • Pursue maximum overtime options for staff working on the backlog for those who do not already have maximum overtime flexibilities;
  • Allow additional employees to volunteer to join surge teams, such as employees with prior account management experience or those trained in a relatively short period; and
  • Extend overtime options for additional surge team employees.
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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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