The group is urging White House officials to move away from emphasizing individual identity checks as a way to stem fraud and to ensure that identity verification technology, such as facial recognition, doesn’t create obstacles for those seeking jobless aid.
“When it comes to ensuring that public benefits are spent wisely, there can be an overfocus on the individual as the problem,” said Marcus Courtney, who co-leads the Unemployment Insurance Tech Coordinating Coalition. Identity verification technology has become “a disappointing obstacle” for people seeking unemployment relief, Courtney said.
Biden is expected to issue the executive order in late April, with the goal of rooting out identity theft in public benefits programs without compromising people’s privacy and civil rights in the process. It comes in the wake of public backlash to government use of software from ID.me, a company that provides identity verification through facial-recognition technology. Last month, ID.me began offering a separate, non-automated option that lets users verify their identities with a human agent by video chat or an in-person meeting.
“While we are still working through the exact recommendations in the executive order, we have agreed from the start that the main focus should be on the prevention of large attacks—such as from criminal syndicates—and that helping victims of identity theft would be a major priority of our effort,” Gene Sperling, who oversees implementation of the pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan, said in a statement.
Government use of ID.me’s automated identity verification services raised concerns among privacy and security advocates for collecting data from people’s faces. Civil rights activists also questioned its fairness, since facial recognition technology can perform poorly on people with darker skin and some people lack the digital devices or savvy needed to access their accounts via selfie.
“The hope is that the executive order will place some meaningful guardrails here to ensure that there’s real consideration at the front end of equity, privacy, and the potential discriminatory harms of these technologies before they are adopted,” said Olga Akselrod, senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program.
The Internal Revenue Service said in February it would stop using ID.me’s controversial facial recognition software for taxpayers trying to access online accounts. The Department of Veterans Affairs also is reconsidering its use, though many U.S. state unemployment agencies still use ID.me.
Biden’s upcoming executive order should support the development of better tools for people to confirm their identity online, Courtney and coalition co-lead Adam Bobrow wrote in a March 14 letter to Sperling, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, and Seth Harris, the council’s deputy director.
Their letter said the order should favor publicly run options like Login.gov, which is already used as an authentication tool on some government websites, over private sector solutions like ID.me’s services. Before Login.gov can serve as a useful substitute, it must improve its ability to offer different levels of identity verification, Bobrow said.
Biden also plans to issue new directives for supporting the victims of identity fraud, according to a White House fact sheet.
People who have had information such as their Social Security numbers stolen may be familiar with the steps necessary to monitor their accounts and prove their identity, said India McKinney, director of federal affairs at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. When people’s faces are used to identify them, it can complicate attempts to prove themselves if such data is stolen, she said.
“It’s recreating the exact same problem, but making it harder to solve,” McKinney said.