House Democrats urge IRS to halt facial recognition plans

The politicians are concerned about bias and security.

US Democratic Representative Ted Lieu speaks at a press conference following a meeting of the Democratic Caucus at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on November 2, 2021. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

It's not just Republican senators upset over the Internal Revenue Service's plans to adopt facial recognition. Democratic House Representatives Ted Lieu, Anna Eshoo, Pramila Jayapal and Yvette Clarke have sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig demanding his agency drop plans to use facial recognition starting this summer. They're concerned the plan will compromise privacy and security by forcing uploads of sensitive data to a database that could be a "prime target" for cyberattacks like the one that exposed license plates at Customs and Border Protection in 2019.

The members of Congress were also worried about lingering accuracy and bias problems with facial recognition systems. While maintains its technology is equitable and inclusive, the Democrats pointed to a National Institute of Standards and Technology study that showed many more false positives for Asian and Black faces, even in one-to-one matching systems like the one sometimes uses. The requirement for facial recognition also discriminated against those who couldn't afford "reliable" broadband and video capabilities, according to the letter.

Transparency was also a point of contention. The House reps were concerned backtracked on claims it didn't use potentially more invasive one-to-many face recognition tech, and that the IRS wasn't transparent regarding its contract.

The House group asked the IRS to answer several questions on top of rethinking its policy. The politicians wanted the tax service to explain the methodology leading to the contract, including examples of fraud that would justify facial recognition and the lack of disclosures surrounding's tech. Lieu and allies similarly wanted to know if the IRS had taken measures to address the potentials for bias and security breaches. There was no deadline for answering these questions.

Letters like this won't guarantee action. There's no immediate threat of legislation or other efforts that could force the IRS to change course. They do reflect mounting bipartisan (and bicameral) opposition to the service's facial recognition strategy, though, and they come as part of a broader effort to ban the technology at the federal level. If politicians deem the IRS' response inadequate, they might escalate their legislative efforts.