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State unemployment agency will stop using face recognition to check identities

The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance will stop using facial-recognition technology as a way for people to prove their identity when signing up for benefits.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance says it will stop using facial-recognition technology as a way for people to prove their identity when signing up for benefits. The move comes three weeks after the US Internal Revenue Service announced it would halt the practice, amid concerns that the system might pose a threat to privacy.

Boston-based Fight for the Future, one of many civil liberties groups that opposed the facial scanning system, hailed the DUA decision. Campaign director Caitlin Seeley George called it “a huge victory for privacy, security, and our civil rights.”

The facial recognition system, operated by Virginia-based ID.me, lets users identify themselves by submitting a photo of a driver’s license or passport. Users then take live photos of themselves. The ID.me system compares the live image with the photo ID, confirming that it’s the same person.

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In a background document e-mailed to the Globe, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said that DUA implemented the system in March 2021 in response to a nationwide surge in fraudulent unemployment claims. Since then, 46,000 Massachusetts residents have used the facial scanning system. The agency offered alternative sign-in procedures for people who couldn’t transmit electronic images, or didn’t want to.

But, “Now that the pandemic-driven fraud and claimant volumes have subsided, in the coming weeks DUA will no longer use ID.me’s facial recognition option,” the statement said.

The agency will continue to work with ID.me, which offers an online sign-up service that does not require a facial scan. Instead, the user logs onto a live video chat and speaks to an ID.me representative who confirms that the user’s face matches the ID photo.

Blake Hall, chief executive of ID.me, said that critics have misunderstood his company’s use of the technology. “The misinformation has definitely damaged our brand,” Hall said.

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The ID.me system complies with a federal regulation issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said Hall. This regulation recommended the use of biometric systems, such as fingerprint scanning or facial recognition, as a more secure way for people to gain access to federal government websites.

The information collected by ID.me is used only to let people log in, Hall said. It’s held by the company and not shared with any government agency, unless the company receives a subpoena. Hall said the company has received such subpoenas 45 times since it was founded in 2010.

Still, critics of the technology worried the ID.me system might normalize the use of facial recognition as an everyday method of identification. This could enable governments and corporations to keep people under constant surveillance using cheap and ever-present video cameras — a practice already common in many countries, including authoritarian states like China.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.