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Wyden pushes for Oregon and other state unemployment systems to ditch ID.me

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the IRS budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)
Tom Williams
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the IRS budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants state unemployment insurance systems, including Oregon’s, to stop hiring private contractors who use facial recognition technology to verify the identities of people seeking jobless benefits.

“Facial recognition should not be a prerequisite for accessing [unemployment insurance] or any other essential government services,” Wyden wrote with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, in a letter this week to the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

The senators singled out ID.me, a controversial identity verification provider that Oregon and many other states use to combat benefits fraud and identity theft.

ID.me has drawn fire for requiring millions of users to take a video selfie as part of its identity checks. Privacy advocates and members of Congress have protested linking sensitive biometric data to public benefits or to other government services.

The Internal Revenue Service bowed to that pressure earlier this month and abandoned its expensive plan to require ID.me verification for taxpayers accessing their accounts online.

Now Wyden, who urged the IRS to ditch ID.me, wants the U.S. Department of Labor to help state employment agencies do the same.

“Facial recognition technology not only raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns, but many facial recognition technologies are biased in ways that negatively impact vulnerable groups, including people of color, women and seniors,” Wyden and his fellow senators wrote.

The Oregon Employment Department started gradually using ID.me in March 2021, acting director David Gerstenfeld said, in response to “a barrage of fraud attempts from national and international crime rings.”

As the federal government pumped emergency funds into unemployment systems in the pandemic, jobless benefits became desirable targets.

“Nationally, there was just a massive spike in these attacks, and it was clear that the existing tools didn’t provide adequate protection,” Gerstenfeld said at a press briefing Wednesday.

The agency now requires applicants on “almost all new claims” to go through identity verification, either online through ID.me or in person at a WorkSource office. Gerstenfeld said a new pilot program is providing access to cellphones at WorkSource offices for people who don’t have personal phones with cameras.

Gerstenfeld said about 27,000 claims had been referred to ID.me through January of this year. Of those, roughly 17,000 people successfully completed ID.me’s identity verification, including scanning their faces in order to access unemployment benefits.

Oregon has reported lower levels of unemployment insurance fraud than some other states in the pandemic. That could be due, in part, to its antiquated infrastructure and clunky systems, which may have frustrated bad actors as well as workers who legitimately needed help.

The Employment Department says it paid out at least $24 million in fraudulent payments in 2020, before contracting with ID.me. That’s just 0.32% of benefits delivered that year.

Other states reported billions of dollars in losses.

Gerstenfeld said the agency paused its use of ID.me last fall, to evaluate any disparate impacts from the program. He said young people, Spanish speakers, and applicants who identified as Black or Native American reported the most difficulty with ID.me. Gerstenfeld said the agency increased multilingual outreach in response.

Sens. Wyden, Brown and Warren called on the labor department to help state agencies transition to a government-run identity verification system, login.gov, that millions of Americans already use to access federal websites.

“We agree with Senator Wyden that an ideal solution would be a nationally provided identity verification tool,” Gerstenfeld said. “We need to have something.”

Earlier this month, ID.me announced it would offer public agencies an option to bypass facial recognition technology. The company also said users could delete their stored selfies beginning March 1.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Kate Davidson