AI & futurism

This article was published on February 9, 2022

The campaign against IRS use of facial recognition is a model for digital activism

Online resistance isn't futile


The campaign against IRS use of facial recognition is a model for digital activism Image by: Thirdman (edited)
Thomas Macaulay
Story by

Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

Digital activists can celebrate a memorable victory after the IRS ditched a controversial facial recognition system.

The agency had planned to use third-party facial recognition tech (FRT) to verify millions of people who use the IRS website. Last year, a vendor called ID.me was awarded an $86 million contract to deploy and maintain the system.

The decision sparked a furious backlash from advocacy groups.

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They warned that the IRS system is intrusive, disrupts the lives of users, could expose people to hackers, and uses tech that’s notorious for biases.

They also raised concerns over the choice of vendor. ID.me has been accused of misrepresenting its tech, and isn’t subject to the same oversight rules as government agencies.

The uproar caught the attention of politicians. In a letter to the IRS Commissioner, four members of Congress urged the agency to “halt this plan.” Hours later, the IRS announced it would “transition away” from the service.

The reversal set a powerful example for future digital activism.

Methods of victory

The rapid response campaign was organized by a coalition of groups, including the AJL, EPIC, and Fight for the Future.

Their message was clear and simple:

Tell the IRS: no facial recognition

The word was spread through op-eds in The Atlantic, letters to the White House, online petitions, and the work of researchers, reporters, lawmakers, and advocacy groups.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, Director of Research and Design at the AJL, gave much of the credit to the Black women who exposed the risks of FRT.

They include Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru, whose landmark 2018 study showed the software disproportionately misclassified Black women.

Two years later, a federal government study reached the same conclusion.

“Dr Buolamwini and other Black women set the stage for this win, which isn’t the first and won’t be the last,” said Costanza-Chock.

Indeed, the victory could further fuel the eruption in digital activism sparked by COVID-19.

Digital uprisings

The campaign against the IRS was largely fought online.

Jeramie D. Scott, Senior Counsel with EPIC, said it showed digital activism can produce real results:

Although not perfect, the digital public spaces we have can sometimes allow issues to gain and sustain momentum in a way that leads to change. This is particularly true when it comes to the implementation of dangerous technologies like facial recognition.

More people, including legislators, can be informed and understand the issues before the technology becomes ubiquitous in a way that makes it hard to reverse course.

The campaign isn’t complete yet. There are still numerous government agencies that have contracts with facial recognition suppliers such as ID.me.

“Ultimately, we need strong federal legislation for algorithmic accountability,” said Costanza-Chock. “We can win this when people with lived experience of harm from unjust and unchecked technological systems organize together.”

FRT is far from the only AI that threatens human rights. But the IRS U-turn shows online activism can help reverse their rollout.

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