Why the hell do I need to submit a scan of my face to file my taxes now?

JGI/Jamie Grill
Impact
The IRS has made tax season even worse, somehow

Tax season is quickly approaching. If you’re anything like me, you’re already annoyed by the mere prospect of having to interact with the Internal Revenue Service and all its bureaucracy. This year though, we have the added bonus of the IRS requiring you to scan your face to file taxes online. Not only is this an annoying, extra step, but it immediately begs the question: Why the hell is the IRS buying into surveillance software?

On Wednesday, security blogger Brian Krebs spotted an update on the IRS website telling people to create accounts with a Virginia-based company called ID.me. Per the IRS, without this account, “You won’t be able to log in with your existing IRS username and password starting in summer 2022.”

So what exactly is ID.me? As Krebs described, ID.me is an online identity verification service. To use it, people have to provide the company with a government identification document, copies of their bills, and a selfie. If you know me and my thoughts about facial recognition technology, you know why this news makes me want to drop kick my computer off my roof.

ID.me claims its face match system is distinct from facial recognition. In a white paper, the company said, “Face match is equivalent to an airport agent comparing your face to the photo on your government ID card. Facial recognition is equivalent to giving your picture to the same agent, putting him on stage at a rock concert, and asking him to pick your face out of the crowd.”

To ID.me, this distinction is important because it absolves their software of the larger concerns around facial recognition, namely that it really only works for cis white men. But as your friendly neighborhood anti-surveillance journalist, I’ll tell you now that it’s like arguing the difference between poop and diarrhea. At the end of the day, it’s all shit, isn’t it?

There’s absolutely no reason for the IRS to require people to submit their biometrics in order to file taxes. First, this inherently opens up concerns about the potential of people’s information being leaked. In addition, as pointed out by Chris Gilliard, a professor at Macomb Community College in Michigan, there are discriminatory aspects to introducing technological steps to tax filing, particularly unnecessary ones. Not everyone has the ability to take a selfie and upload it to an online portal, for example.

While ID.me claims that it’s working to ensure its face “matching” software — call it facial recognition, that’s what it is — isn’t discriminatory, a Bloomberg report suggests otherwise. Throughout the pandemic, ID.me has gotten contracts with a few states governments, and the outlet found multiple complaints through California’s Employment Development Department. One transgender user was blocked from accessing state benefits because the gender on their driver’s license and passport didn’t match. Another person told Bloomberg that ID.me’s app wouldn’t recognize her face, so she was locked out of the system for 72 hours.

Per Gizmodo, ID.me has a plan in place if its system can’t verify your selfie or flags other issues. You get to join a video call with a representative the company has dubbed a “Trusted Referee.” The company has also reportedly started doing in-person identity verification in some locations. But this is still opening people up to a level of intrusion and policing that is simply unacceptable — because what happens if the Trusted Referee also decides that you aren’t, well, you?

That isn’t a wild “what-if” scenario, particularly for trans people. In 2015, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that 68% of respondents said they had to use IDs without their preferred name or gender. Of those who used IDs that didn’t match their gender presentation, over 30% said they were verbally harassed, denied benefits or services, asked to leave, or even assaulted.

An IRS spokesperson confirmed with Gizmodo that people can still get basic information from the IRS website without logging into an ID.me account. However, if you want to make and view payments, access tax records, create payment plans, and more, then you have no choice but to create one. The only other option is to request transcripts by mail and file on paper — though, Gizmodo reported, “Neither the IRS nor ID.me could provide any specific example of how to access tax documents online without providing a face scan.”