Watkins, a self-described privacy advocate whose mother and grandmother shredded personal information when he was growing up, said he is unwilling to complete the identity verification process his state now requires, which includes having his face analyzed by a little-known company called ID.me.
He sent a sharply worded letter to his state’s unemployment agency criticizing ID.me’s service, saying he would not take part in it given his privacy concerns. In response, he received an automated note from the agency: “If you do not verify your identity soon, your claim will be disqualified and no further benefit payments will be issued.” (A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said the agency only allows manual identity verification “as a last resort” for unemployment claimants who are under 18 — because ID.me doesn’t work with minors — and those who have “technological barriers.”)
For Watkins, he said it felt like he was forced to choose between the privacy he believed he was entitled to and the money he was owed. Still, when it comes to ID.me, the answer for him is clear: “I want nothing to do with them.”
As of this month, 27 states’ unemployment agencies had entered contracts with ID.me, according to the company, with 25 of them already using its technology. ID.me said it is in talks with seven more. ID.me also verifies user identities for numerous federal agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Social Security Administration and IRS.
The company’s rapid advance at state unemployment agencies marks the latest chapter in the story of facial recognition software’s spread across the United States. It also highlights how this controversial technology gained a foothold during the pandemic and now appears destined to remain part of our lives for the foreseeable future.
ID.me uses a form of facial recognition known as facial verification, which compares a photo ID with a video selfie that a person takes on their phone when prompted by ID.me’s software. It’s similar to the process of unlocking your smartphone with your face; the facial recognition a police department might use, by contrast, may attempt to match a photo of a person to ones in a database of faces. The face-matching technology ID.me employs comes from a San Francisco-based startup called Paravision. (Paravision told CNN Business it doesn’t typically comment on its partners’ systems, but that rollouts of its technology are guided by its AI principles, “which require that our products are ethically developed and conscientiously sold.”)
“If I wanted unemployment, I had no choice but to do this,” said Erin Murphy, who practices acupuncture and massage therapy in Rifle, Colorado, and filed for unemployment benefits in April. “I don’t think I even have an opportunity to consider if I accept it or not, because I have no choice.”
From ID.me’s perspective, its service is making it easier for a wide range of people to access essential government services, as it avoids the common practice of using information gleaned from data brokers and credit bureaus as a means of checking identities. The company said this lets it give a green light to those who don’t have a credit history, or may have changed their name, for instance — people who might otherwise have more trouble getting verified.
However, it doesn’t sit well with employee and privacy advocates and civil rights groups interviewed by CNN Business. They have concerns about the facial recognition technology itself and for the ID.me verification process’s reliance on access to a smartphone or computer and the internet, which may be out of reach for the people to whom unemployment dollars are most critical.
“There’s a real question as to whether there are in fact other, more accessible processes that states could be adopting that could address concerns about fraud without adopting a technology that is known to be biased and have other serious civil rights implications,” said Olga Akselrod, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Laying the groundwork
While ID.me has grown massively in the past year, the company has been laying the groundwork for offering widespread identity verification for years — even though it started out doing something very different.
“I come from a community where ‘no man left behind’ is an American value and core to the military,” Hall said. “And so, at ID.me, we call it ‘no identity left behind’, where we’re striving for a more equitable and just society.”
Hall said ID.me saw lots of people applying for unemployment benefits with the same ID in multiple states. But he said the company saw immediate declines in fraud rates in states when it added the technology. CNN Business could not independently confirm this claim.
“As soon as they have to put their face in front of a camera, they go away,” he said of would-be unemployment fraudsters in California in particular. “Because now the stakes, for the criminal, are much higher.”
Steve Gray, senior counsel for the National Employment Law Project, or NELP, isn’t convinced this is always the case. Gray said the NELP has heard stories of people who just threw their hands up and gave up due to problems with the ID.me verification process ranging from long waits for video chats to issues accessing the technology needed to sign up, and he’s concerned that it’s making it harder for people to get their unemployment benefits.
ID.me “has a serious chilling effect on the application process,” he said. “Which means people just leave and walk away. And we don’t have a good way of telling right now why they’re not completing the application.”
In Florida, ID.me is used by the Department of Economic Opportunity. State Rep. Anna Eskamani said the company’s use of facial recognition should concern policymakers “because we’re normalizing new technologies that nobody knows how they’re used long term.”
Hall said he understood some have questions about ID.me but likened it to more familiar verification processes.
“If you want to board an airplane, you have to let a TSA agent look at your face and compare it to a government ID. If you’re opening a bank account, you will show a bank branch representative your face and your government ID,” he said. “This is the exact same process.”
Opting out may be arduous
“We’re verifying more than 1% of the American adult population each quarter, and that’s starting to compress more to like 45 or 50 days,” Hall said. The company has more than 50 million users, he said, and signs up more than 230,000 new ones each day. And, as Hall pointed out, if someone verifies their identity with ID.me for one government agency, that person can avoid going through the process again for another agency.
Yet not everyone who starts the ID.me process finishes. Don Lyon, who works in manufacturing for General Motors and lives in Richmond, Michigan, said he abandoned ID.me after a number of problems, including ID.me’s failure to match his driver’s license photo with the selfie he took on his phone.
Lyon, who was trying to verify his identity with ID.me in order to opt out from receiving child tax credit payments from the IRS, noted some visual differences between the pictures: he’s about 30 pounds heavier now and has a full beard, he said, rather than a mustache and goatee. Lyon said he was asked to provide more personally identifiable information and he eventually found a way to avoid ID.me and verify his identity directly with the IRS.
Vasquez said that, when a state chooses to use a tool it knows has a tendency to not work as well on some people, she thinks that “starts to invade something more than privacy and get at questions of what society values and how it values different members’ work and what our society believes about dignity.”
Hall claims ID.me’s facial recognition software is over 99% accurate and said an internal test conducted on hundreds of faces of people who had failed to pass the facial recognition check for logging in to the social security website did not show statistically significant evidence of racial bias.
Most people aren’t doing this, however; it’s time consuming to deal with snail mail or wade through EDD’s phone system, and many people don’t have access to a fax machine. An EDD spokesperson said that such manual identity verification, which used to be a “significant” part of EDD’s backlog, now accounts for “virtually none” of it.
Long wait times for some
Eighty-five percent of people are able to verify their identity with ID.me immediately for state workforce agencies without needing to go through a video chat, Hall said.
“These technologies may be inaccessible for precisely the people for whom access to unemployment insurance is the most critical,” Akselrod said.
Hall pointed out that, if a user needs to go through a video chat for their identity verification, the process is a one-time event, and family, friends, or community centers may be able to help with, say, a smartphone or laptop and internet access. In the coming weeks, he said ID.me will also allow people to verify their identities in person at over 500 locations in the US.
For those who do have the technological tools and internet, it can still be a time-consuming, confounding process.
Even with an iPhone and an Apple laptop, Murphy, the Colorado-based acupuncturist and massage therapist, said she had issues uploading her documents during the verification process and then was informed that to complete the process she had to conduct a video chat with an ID.me agent. It took her days of waiting in front of her laptop at all hours to get through to a real person, she said.
Such waits, at least, appear to be lessening: Hall repeatedly told CNN Business that its wait times for video calls were currently low (he quoted a wait of two minutes in an email sent on a Thursday evening, then nine minutes on the following Monday afternoon). And he said the company now has more than 1,400 workers devoted to conducting video chats for public-sector customers, which include government websites.
“If you have less than 30 minutes left on your current estimated wait-time, please do not step away from your device — the wait time may go down rapidly at this point and you don’t want to miss your appointment!” ID.me warns.