The Volokh Conspiracy

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Why you should want the IRS to use facial recognition technology

An op-ed from the Washington Post


Here are excerpts from my op-ed in today's Washington Post on the controversy over IRS use of face recognition:

The plan sent Congress into a tizzy. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) complained that "many facial recognition technologies are biased in ways that negatively impact vulnerable groups, including people of color, women, and seniors." Fifteen Republican senators objected that the face recognition system threatened to make taxpayers "pay the toll of giving up their most personal information, biometric data."
Cowed by the accusations of bias and privacy, the IRS announced that it will "transition away" from face recognition. But both accusations are false, and the price that you and I will pay for this panicky retreat is enormous.

Wyden wants the IRS to switch to "verification by humans." Talk about lose-lose. At this point, the technology is much better than humans: Even human "super-recognizers" can't beat the algorithms. Their best accuracy rates are around 95 percent, well behind today's machines, and ordinary mortals, with an error rate of about 81 percent, aren't even close. They will almost certainly show more bias, too; humans are notorious for having trouble recognizing people outside their ethnic group.

Meanwhile, taxpayers would get worse service that costs more. If you've flown home from overseas in the past few years, you've probably skipped the customs line served by a human officer and headed straight for a kiosk that uses face recognition to match you to your passport. And I'll wager money you never want to go back to the old system.

But when it comes to protecting yourself from identity theft, that's exactly what the bipartisan critics in Congress want the IRS to do to you. Instead of a quick, automated process, you will wait on the phone to be verified by a human being. That human being will be working for the same understaffed IRS that has not even gotten around to opening and logging all the returns it received in the mail nearly two years ago.

But that's what's in store for all of us if the bipartisan group of congressional critics gets its way. If it's any consolation, we probably won't be on hold for the whole two years.

But it sure will feel that way.