IRS offers alternative to facial recognition

By Paul Bonner

Taxpayers signing up for and using IRS online services are now able to authenticate their identities with a new alternative to uploading a "selfie" photo, and if they do use facial recognition or have done so in the past, their photos will be deleted, the IRS announced Monday.

The option follows up on the IRS's announcement Feb. 7 that it was scrapping its plan to require selfies and facial recognition by summer 2022. Requiring facial recognition, which involves a third-party technology provider, ID.me, came under fire from Congress and others concerned about taxpayers' privacy, who were worried the arrangement could compromise the security of the personal information it is meant to protect.

The new option for registering allows taxpayers to verify their identity during a "live, virtual interview with agents," the IRS stated. Taxpayers choosing it will not have to provide a self-photo or other biometric data.

Facial recognition through ID.me also remains an option, but "new requirements are in place to ensure images provided by taxpayers are deleted for the account being created," the IRS said. And images provided by taxpayers previously for an online account or other interaction with the IRS will also be permanently deleted in coming weeks, the statement added.

It appeared as of Tuesday morning, however, that the announced changes had not yet been implemented on the taxpayer account portal. In addition to its still offering ID.me, text on the Sign In or Create a New Account page still urged users to choose that method and, if they had previously created an account with a username and password, to switch to ID.me "as soon as possible," along with the now-outdated warning it would become mandatory in summer 2022. ID.me appeared to be the only option offered for creating an account, and no information appeared about creating an account via a virtual interview.

Besides taxpayer accounts, ID.me has been available for use with the IRS's Child Tax Credit Update Portal, Get Transcript Online, Get an Identity Protection PIN, and Online Payment Agreement services, and for practitioners, the Tax Pro Account and Submit Forms 2848 and 8821 Online services. It has also been used for several other federal and state government services.

The IRS announced last November that ID.me would in 2022 become its sole method of taxpayer authentication. Fifteen Republican senators wrote IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig on Feb. 3 raising questions and concerns about the plan, including how the data would be stored and protected; how the Service intended to oversee ID.me as a private, nongovernmental entity; taxpayers' rights and assurances under the arrangement; the intrusiveness of taxpayers' having to supply biometric data; and their inability to change it if an account is compromised, as one can a password. At a Feb. 17 hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, senators criticized the plan and sought assurances it had been scrapped.

"The IRS made the right decision, because the reality is, protecting Americans' privacy and increasing security are not mutually exclusive," said Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Wyden also thanked Rettig for the Service's having reversed course and said he had discussed his concerns with the committee's ranking member, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who led the group that wrote the Feb. 3 letter.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also brought up ID.me during the hearing, noting reports of the IRS's $86 million contract with the company, which he said would have held taxpayers' data for up to seven years.

"Which is extremely concerning to my constituents, both for privacy and safety reasons," Thune said.

Asked by Thune whether the IRS could properly protect "this type of data," National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins demurred, saying, "I'm not an IT person, so I'll start with that." Collins said she recognized the concerns regarding ID.me but also noted that the arrangement had been expected to markedly increase use of online accounts and called it "vital" for taxpayers to have some method of safe and secure access to their own tax records.

The IRS in the latest announcement called its new authentication process with a virtual interview a "short-term solution" for the current return filing season. Going forward, the Service will use Login.gov, which it said it is working with the U.S. General Services Administration to implement after the 2022 filing deadline. Login.gov is already used by several federal agencies and functions including by applicants for federal jobs, as well as for loans and disaster assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration. It is also used by travelers participating in the Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program.

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Paul Bonner at Paul.Bonner@aicpa-cima.com.

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