Unemployment system shifting away from facial recognition tech

Move comes after criticism from Warren, other senators

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

THE STATE’S UNEMPLOYMENT assistance agency will in the “coming weeks” stop utilizing facial recognition technology to verify the identities of benefit applicants after senior members of Congress, including US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, criticized the process and the Internal Revenue Service announced it would transition to a new verification process by next filing season.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance has been using the technology provided through the vendor ID.me since March 2021 to verify the identities of unemployment beneficiaries as the volume of applications surged during the COVID-19 pandemic and criminals targeted UI systems nationwide to make fraudulent claims.

The platform was deployed to speed up claims processing after enhanced ID verification measures were put in place as a shield against fraud, but began to slow the distribution of benefits to eligible residents. The practice, however, has come under scrutiny due to privacy issues and longstanding concerns about racial bias in facial recognition technology.

Warren co-signed a letter written by US Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon with Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio last week urging US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to make sure state unemployment insurance programs can verify applicants’ identities without relying on private firms like ID.me that use facial recognition.

“Facial recognition should not be a prerequisite for accessing UI or any other essential government services,” Wyden, Brown, and Warren wrote. “It is concerning that so many state and federal government agencies have outsourced their core technology infrastructure to the private sector.”

The senators continued, “It is particularly concerning that one of the most prominent vendors in the space, ID.me, not only uses facial recognition and lacks transparency about its processes and results, but frequently has unacceptably long wait times for users to be screened by humans after being rejected by the company’s automated scanning system.”

The state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance said more than 46,000 claimants used the ID.me platform to verify their identities between March 2021 and February 2022, and the agency said the vendor has always offered “alternative methods of verification” if applicants did not want to share their biometric data.

With the threat of pandemic-fueled fraud and claimant volumes declining, DUA officials said “in the coming weeks” the agency will no longer use ID.me’s facial recognition option.

The move by the state to stop relying on facial recognition software to process unemployment claims comes after the Internal Revenue Service said Monday it would allow taxpayers to opt-out of using the technology to access their online accounts, instead verifying their identities through a live, virtual interview with an ID.me representative.

The tax-collecting agency had previously announced plans to transition away from the ID.me platform to Login.gov in time for next year’s filing season

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State House News Service
The Department of Unemployment Assistance said ID.me is currently in use by 26 other state workforce departments, as well as 10 federal agencies and 35 total state agencies. The platform was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, but DUA said it would “welcome the opportunity to review additional guidance from the federal government regarding ID verification.”

Fight for the Future, a grassroots group that has mobilized around tech issues like net neutrality, said it was “thrilled” with the decision by the IRS to move away from ID.me and the use of facial recognition, but flagged its continued use in states like Massachusetts where the organization said “tens of thousands of people have already been living with the impacts of this discriminatory and harmful technology.”

“Members of our communities filing for unemployment across the country have felt demoralized and dehumanized by the ID.me process since the start of the pandemic. Some were forced to wait for months to receive the life-saving benefits they earned and helped pay for. For these people, the dangers and harms of ID.me aren’t theoretical — they’re reality,” Fight for the Future Campaign Director Caitlin Seeley George said in a statement.