Mar 17, 2022 - Technology

Face recognition's staying power

Illustration of Earth beneath a facial recognition face shape

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

U.S. adoption of facial recognition software hit a speed bump recently when the Internal Revenue Service dropped one controversial plan, but public and private institutions are charging ahead with deploying the technology anyway.

Why it matters: Facial recognition systems solve thorny identification problems for government agencies and businesses, but they also raise concerns over bias and privacy, particularly since the U.S. lacks strong data regulations.

The big picture: Despite the concerns, government use of facial recognition continues to grow in the U.S. and abroad.

  • Twenty-seven U.S. states already use's services to assist with verifying identification for unemployment benefits and other services. And this month, Washington state said it would start using in June.
  • War-torn Ukraine has started using controversial company Clearview AI's facial recognition services to "[let] authorities potentially vet people of interest at checkpoints, among other uses," Reuters reported.

Catch up quick: Last month, the IRS backtracked from its plan to require taxpayers to verify their identities using to obtain some services. The agency will allow people to do live, virtual interviews with agents instead.

What they're saying: Regulators and civil liberties groups have pushed hard against the use of software in particular.

  • "There is no way that facial recognition or other tools that collect biometric data can be used in a safe manner. We liken it to nuclear weapons ā€” too dangerous and shouldn't be used at all," Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future, told Axios.
  • "What we saw with the IRS using facial recognition is a sign of things to come. The backlash was swift and very clear that it is not a tool that should be used by our government," she said.
  • Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote to the Labor Department last month urging the agency to help state unemployment insurance programs move away from private facial recognition contractors.
  • "States are rightfully looking for solutions to protect against fraud and identity theft. But no one should be forced to submit to facial recognition administered by a private company just to access essential government services," Wyden told Axios.

The intrigue: Facial recognition can solve many problems for organizations that need to verify a person's identity, particularly given the obstacles raised during the pandemic.

  • For instance, Washington state briefly stopped unemployment benefits in 2020, after finding fraudulent claims made with stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data that totaled $1.6 million, according to the Seattle Times.
  • In 2019, the Government Accountability Office recommended that several federal agencies discontinue "knowledge-based verification," which relies on a user's knowing and presenting personal information (like answers to security questions) to prove their identity. The GOA said this verification "tends to be error-prone and can be frustrating for users, given the limitations of human memory."

Between the lines: Facial recognition's deployment in everyday consumer devices, like iPhone's Face ID, has accustomed much of the public to its use.

  • A Pew survey from 2019 showed that a majority of U.S. respondents trusted law enforcement to use facial recognition responsibly.
  • Facial recognition is "used a lot of different ways, and some are really creepy and concerning, and some are really benign... And in some cases, in the U.S., it's been used pretty safely and effectively," said Jeremy Grant, managing director of technology business strategy at law firm Venable LLP, who consults with identity verification businesses.

Yes, but: The highest-profile face-recognition providers have spurred barrages of criticism for failing to play straight with the public.

  • "A lack of transparency erodes public trust," Jordan Burris, former chief of staff in the White House's Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer, told Axios. Burris is now senior director of product market strategy at Socure, a digital identity verification provider that serves the public and private sector.
  • "Regardless of the tech used, there needs to be a focus on deep testing, security, privacy of the consumer, mitigating bias and getting the outcomes intended by the government," he said.

Reality check: Even if facial recognition tools provoked a broader groundswell, businesses have already made a massive data harvest over the last decade and built lasting databases of personal information.

  • Clearview AI told investors last month that "almost everyone in the world will be identifiable" after it collects its targeted 100 billion facial photos, the Washington Post reported.
  • Last year, TikTok updated its terms of service to say the popular app will automatically collect "faceprints and voiceprints" without details on how they will be used.
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