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Recently the IRS announced a new facial recognition system that would require customers upload videos of themselves to access certain IRS services. Over the past couple weeks the system has faced backlash online, bi-partisan backlash in Congress, and a lot of media attention, and this week the IRS announced they were transitioning away from the facial recognition service. What lessons does the IRS’s about face teach us about the current state of privacy awareness among the general population and people’s power to change privacy policy, and what does it mean for the future?

Death, Taxes and Privacy

Some people think privacy invasion is as inevitable as death and taxes, and that the average person doesn’t care. I’ve long said that people care about privacy very much, they just feel powerless to do something about it. Beyond that, people have different standards for what they consider private. For instance, a nudist holds very different opinions on the privacy of their body compared to the average population. Some people publish their salaries (and public workers are even required to) while others consider it very personal. I once sat on a flight with a person convinced privacy wasn’t important, until it came to their health care information.

One of the things that made this past week’s news so newsworthy was the speed and intensity of the backlash and the policy reversal. In this case, the people didn’t feel powerless, but instead demonstrated their power. Why? A large part of this has to do with the different stance people have toward government invasions of their privacy. The Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal became a privacy scandal in the first place not because Facebook was collecting this data or sharing it with third parties–that was well known and largely accepted–but because the data was being used for elections.

Think about the backlash if the government announced a new program to provide essential government services. This program tracked all your purchases, all the places you went both online and in the physical world, kept track of everyone you talked to, and listened to what you said in your homes. Many of the same people who would resist that government program already accept the same privacy invasion in exchange for non-essential cloud services.

Facing The Truth

This IRS story reveals a few truths. First, the distinction between government and corporate privacy invasion has blurred. You can no longer resist one and ignore the other. The facial recognition system the IRS was using wasn’t something the government built, instead it used the third party ID.me system based on Amazon’s Rekognition technology. Law enforcement has realized they can get surveillance data much more easily from a data broker, than through a warrant.

Second, you aren’t powerless to do something about your privacy. The same backlash that caused the IRS’s about face will work in the tech world, as long as people make their voices heard, and vote for technology that protects their privacy. Sometimes that means doing without a particular service, whether from the IRS, or as I personally experienced this week, deciding against booking an overnight stay because the booking service required we submit to facial recognition. If that booking service faced the same backlash the IRS did, it would change its policy.

As momentum builds against facial recognition tech, this week demonstrates that our collective votes and voices can make a difference. All it takes is for people to realize the power they have when they collectively refuse to use technology that invades their privacy not just when it’s from the government, but from tech companies as well. The future of privacy is not as bleak as it may sometimes seem. Tech companies do not hold all of the power. As people become more aware of how their data is used and abused, and realize the power they have to change it, we have an opportunity to build a future with technology that protects people’s privacy instead of exploits it.

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