TAMPA, Fla. — A national petition is circulating, calling on states to stop requiring facial recognition for unemployment benefits.
The petition from Fight for the Future, a non-profit working to ban facial recognition, gained 6,000 signatures within three weeks of its launch -- more than 250 of those signatures are from Floridians.
On Monday, I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern dug into the impact of Florida's contract with ID.me, a company operating in 26 states, that uses facial recognition as a tool to combat unemployment fraud.
ID.me says its program is "enormously effective" at preventing identity theft.
- ID.me says many states are seeing a 30% fraud rate during ID verification on unemployment claims
- ID.me, the company tasked by Florida to eliminate unemployment fraud says fraud attempts are down but not gone
But critics warn bias within facial recognition technology could create new barriers to benefits, making it harder for some out-of-work Floridians to verify their identities.
- Out-of-work Floridians locked out of CONNECT accounts after ID verification
- Locked accounts plague certain unemployed Floridian's for weeks
- Mom of 4 says unemployment claim is locked and she can't get DEO on the phone to help
“As one of the top national organizations fighting facial recognition, this just seemed like a critical issue for us to jump on," Caitlin Seeley George, Fight for Future's campaign director said.
The petition alleges the system is an "invasion of privacy ... unnecessary ... doesn't work" and is "wrong."
“The fact that this technology was rolled out so quickly during a pandemic is especially cruel, when so many people have lost their jobs and are really relying on these benefits to pay for their homes, their childcare, their food," Seeley George said.
ID.me defends the kind of facial recognition technology it uses to make sure you are who you say you are. Called "one-to-one" face matching, it compares a photo from a government ID to a video selfie, rather than searching a database of potentially hundreds of millions of images to determine a match.
“What our data shows is that it is enormously effective at preventing identity theft, at preventing criminals from attacking the state, because criminals do not want to put their face in front of a camera when they are committing a felony,"
ID.me Founder and CEO Blake Hall told the I-Team. “We literally cut off tens of millions of dollars a week to these fraudsters."
Hall said in the states they’ve analyzed, like California and Arizona, the fraud rate “is always north of 50%.”
"Without that selfie step, there would literally be hundreds of thousands of folks in Florida who would be victims of identity theft right now. A criminal would have been able to use their name, date of birth, social, doctored, or stolen ID to commit identity fraud in their name, and so on balance, the harm to those consumers would be far greater," Hall said.
ID.me says its facial recognition has a 95% success rate.
But that means thousands are still having trouble.
“We know that fraud within the unemployment system is a serious issue. At the same time, the procedures implemented through ID.me to prevent fraud haven’t even stopped all fraud," State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando told the I-Team. "And if anything, we’re seeing it cause a lot of harm versus good for folks who are doing everything right in trying to claim their benefits."
State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, another vocal lawmaker in the fight to get desperate out-of-work Floridians the unemployment benefits they're owed, echoed Eskamani's thoughts on those harmed versus helped.
"I get it that it’s trying to dissuade and diffuse any kind of fraud attempts, but you’re catching too many people in the net while you do it. We don’t give up our ability to prosecute people for fraud just because they got away with it for a week," Pizzo said. “In the interim, people are worried about food and housing, like just get it done. And we can go after the people afterwards."
If someone cannot successfully verify his or her identity through facial recognition, the final option is to wait for a video call with someone from ID.me. The process can take hours.
Aside from those struggling to verify their identity, what continues to be a problem is Floridians who successfully verify their identities through ID.me, only for their unemployment account to remain locked.
“I think the past couple days, we’ve gotten a couple hundred new emails as it related to being locked out or ID verifications," Pizzo told the I-Team on Tuesday.
The state is ultimately responsible for releasing unemployment benefits once someone has verified their identity. But for some, that process is taking weeks, even months.
Others have had their unemployment account unlocked, only for it to be re-locked, forcing them to verify their identity over and over and over.
It's a problem the Department of Economic Opportunity has acknowledged, but has yet to fix.
In an email at the end of last month, a DEO spokesperson wrote:
"The Department is aware of an issue where some claims are being re-locked in CONNECT after their identity has been verified through ID.me. We are working diligently to resolve the issue and unlock claims that have been re-locked. The Department continuously unlocks claims through an automated process after claimants have been verified with ID.me. For existing claimants who have verified their identity and continue to have their claims re-locked, they should allow at least 24-48 hours for the claim to be unlocked."
Pizzo said he'd like to be able to send people to a CareerSource location for help.
"You can be ID verified, you don’t have to send me sensitive or personal information, you can also seek employment assistance all in one stop, why the heck are we not doing that?” Pizzo told the I-Team. “Reading through your article about facial recognition, I have concerns about ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) issues, and not everybody has a smart phone to biometrically identify themselves, so we need to make it available."
ID.me said it is currently working to make its system more accessible by opening up locations for people to get verified in person. Details have not yet been released.
The I-Team has requested an interview with Secretary Dane Eagle multiple times to talk about unemployment fraud and ID.me. Each time, DEO has said he is not available.
DEO provided this statement:
“ID.me is a trusted partner of the state and federal government to help mitigate the unprecedented spread of Reemployment Assistance fraud across the country,” said Secretary Dane Eagle of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. “ID.me’s services have been crucial in protecting the identities of Floridians, and we are excited to learn they will be adding additional staff here in Florida to help combat fraud and protect taxpayer dollars.”
Fight for the Future plans to deliver its petition to lawmakers later this summer.