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Postal ID Checks Floated as Selfie Alternative to Fight Fraud

May 26, 2022, 8:45 AM

Post offices across the U.S. have the potential to play a larger role in proving a person’s identity to access unemployment and other government benefits, while also addressing privacy and fairness concerns over technology used to prevent fraud.

The U.S. Postal Service already provides in-person proofing, or identity verification, for passport applications, background-check fingerprinting, and other services. A person must show an ID card to postal staff to confirm they are who they claim to be.

Expanding these post office capabilities would make it easier for Americans to undergo identity checks locally, while also providing a fallback to online options that may require authentication methods such as facial recognition, according to a new report from the USPS Office of Inspector General.

Verifying credentials in person through the Postal Service would potentially help resolve privacy and bias concerns raised over the use of facial recognition technology, as well as fairness issues for people lacking access to the internet or a digital device. An in-person alternative also could help government agencies combat benefits fraud fueled by the theft of personal information online.

The suggested solution comes in the wake of public backlash to federal and state government use of software from ID.me, a company that verifies people’s identities by comparing a photo ID to a selfie. ID.me recently began offering another option that lets users verify their identities with an agent by video chat or an in-person meeting.

“If people are uncomfortable with selfies, they could go to the post office to literally opt out of the facial recognition system,” said Adam Bobrow, who co-leads a group focused on breaking down digital barriers to distributing public assistance, the Unemployment Insurance Tech Coordinating Coalition. Letting people confirm their identity via postal staff could be useful as “a backup mechanism” to other verification methods, Bobrow said.

The challenge, however, would be implementing an in-person proofing initiative, since the Postal Service doesn’t receive government funding like other agencies. USPS would need to charge people for such services or rely on partnerships with other agencies, like those in place with the State Department for passports or the Federal Bureau of Investigation for fingerprinting, the watchdog report said.

Identity Theft

The post office’s in-person proofing strategy could be used to help victims of identity theft regain access to their government accounts, according to the USPS inspector general.

Reports of identity theft spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic, when emergency disbursement of large amounts of government aid became a target for fraudsters. The White House Office of Management and Budget has estimated that $281.4 billion in pandemic relief and other government benefits were paid improperly in fiscal year 2021, with a significant portion attributable to identity fraud, the report said.

The pandemic also led to the closure of many government offices, forcing rapid transitions to digital identity verification systems. Easy access to passwords and other personal information online facilitates fraud based on stolen identities, according to the watchdog report.

“It’s very easy for bad actors to represent us” in digital interactions and commit fraud on a wide scale, Jeffrey Tackes, who directs digital business services at the Postal Service, said in a recent USPS podcast interview. Relying instead on face-to-face interactions “is really critical in defeating that scaled identity breach,” Tackes said.

President Joe Biden is expected to issue an anti-identity theft executive order in the coming weeks, with the goal of rooting out fraud in public benefits programs without compromising people’s privacy and civil rights in the process.

A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether identity checks at post offices would be included in the upcoming executive order.

Agency Access

The upcoming order will coincide with efforts to build on the General Services Administration’s Login.gov system, which lets users create one account to access online accounts for different federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans already can verify their identities online using a photo of their state-issued ID and other personal information, and Login.gov is working with Veterans Affairs offices to develop an option for in-person proofing, according to a GSA spokesperson.

The USPS inspector general report proposed that Login.gov users could verify their identity in-person at a local post office. The report said the Postal Service is preparing an initiative with Login.gov, though it didn’t provide details of the partnership.

“Login.gov is exploring equitable identity verification and in-person options for vulnerable populations,” a GSA spokesperson said in an email.

GSA partners with some post office locations to collect identification documents, pictures, and fingerprints from federal employees seeking credentials for work.

The inspector general’s report also touched on possible private sector partnerships, where the Postal Service could provide in-person ID verification services for businesses in addition to government agencies.

ID.me, the identity check contractor, began providing in-person verification services in November 2021 and now offers them at about 650 retail locations across the country. A company spokesman said ID.me welcomes a potential expansion of the Postal Service’s authentication capabilities.

“We would look forward to partnering with USPS to offer as many locations as possible for in-person identity verification in addition to our self-serve and video chat based verification options,” the spokesman said.

‘Creative Solution’

The development of Post Office ID services would make “a valuable contribution to the identity ecosystem,” said Jeremy Grant, who previously led a White House initiative on digital identity and now serves as coordinator of the Better Identity Coalition. The coalition has urged the White House to embrace mobile driver’s licenses as another solution to online identity verification needs.

“Millions of Americans have already gone to their local post office to prove who they are as part of getting a passport, and it is only logical that Americans should be able to ‘reuse’ what they went through as part of that identity proofing process when they need to prove who they are online to another entity—by asking the USPS to vouch for them,” Grant said in an email.

USPS offers an attractive avenue for identity checks because most Americans live near a post office and public opinion of the agency is overwhelmingly positive. Mail carriers also could offer at-home identity validation along their postal routes, using mobile delivery devices, the inspector general report said.

This approach, outlined in a patent that the Postal Service recently filed, could help make sure that identity proofing is equitable and accessible, said Olga Akselrod, senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program. People with disabilities, for example, might have a hard time traveling to a post office, she said.

“This is precisely the kind of creative solution that is needed,” Akselrod said.