The General Services Administration isn't ruling out using biometrics in its Login.gov service, but the agency has concerns about equity and accessibility.
The General Services Administration intends to drastically scale the use of the government's secure sign-on service, Login.gov, in coming years, according to new agency budget documents and performance goals.
And although the authentication and identity verification system doesn't currently use facial recognition, budget documents say that Login.gov is still "exploring ... how to address potential discrimination with facial recognition."
The ultimate goal for the service is to be "the public's one account for accessing government services online," budget documents say.
Government agencies need identity verification for sensitive government services and information like unemployment benefits and tax information to be offered online without compromising the sensitive information of individuals or opening the government up to fraudsters.
Also relevant is the speed at which citizens are able to access these services, and whether the identity verification mechanisms installed at the front door of government services are timely and equitable.
The use of biometric markers to verify identities has been highly contested. The IRS recently faced heat around privacy, equity and transparency concerns about the use of facial recognition via ID.me, an identity verification company, from the public and members of Congress of both parties.
In February, the agency announced that it would adopt Login.gov after the end of this tax season, and that new options for verification that don't rely on facial recognition would be available for this tax season.
As for Login.gov itself, new GSA budget documents also show the agency still weighing biometrics, as the agency told FCW in February.
"Login.gov is exploring … how to address potential discrimination with facial recognition," the agency's FY 2023 Congressional justification document says.
"Although Login.gov team is researching facial recognition technology and conducting equity and accessibility studies, GSA has made the decision for now not to use facial recognition, liveness detection, or any other emerging technology in connection with government benefits and services until rigorous review has given us confidence that we can do so equitably and without causing harm to vulnerable populations," a GSA spokesperson told FCW.
Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group that urged the IRS and now other agencies to move away from ID.me and other facial recognition services, says that while Login.gov's current actions are a "sign that government agencies are taking the harms of facial recognition seriously and investing in alternatives," the ultimately takeaway is that "this is why we need legislation banning the use of facial recognition."
"Whether it's the GSA or Amazon, they can say they won't use facial recognition but to truly protect people we need a law in place, otherwise we'll continue to have to play whack-a-mole every time this technology pops up in a new place, or anytime an entity changes its mind," she continued.
As for Login.gov, GSA is also setting goals to increase the use of the platform in coming years.
At the end of FY 2021, 221 government service applications were using the service, up from 83 in FY 2020. The target is to up that to 350 in FY 2023.
GSA also wants to more than double the number of annual active users from 16 million to 41 million.
As GSA looks to scale the use of the service, the agency says it's also looking to "improve identity verification rates across a broader set of demographics, such as age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status."
Currently, the agency is also looking for a permanent director for Login.gov, which has had an acting director for over two years.
Budget documents say that although Login.gov launched with several partners in FY 2021 and plans for more launches in this fiscal year, "it has had to delay some launches as it lacked the capacity to support them in FY 2021."
The plan is to expand the team "commensurate with exponential demand for identity verification services (and a steadily growing authentication user base)."
GSA also has goals for the inner machinery of the service, namely "expanding its suite of identity solutions to increase the diversity of vendor and government data source providers."
The agency wants to increase the number of vendors and government data source providers used on the platform from two to four. Agency budget documents say that more sources "lead to higher identity-proofing accuracy, better user experience, and cost reduction."
GSA is also implementing the nearly $187 million for the service allocated via the Technology Modernization Fund last fall.
That funding is going to be used for cybersecurity efforts and adding in-person options for identity verification, as well as "growing the Login.gov environment by reducing the barrier to entry for agencies to allow for Login.gov to increase usage to a higher percentage of citizen participation," according to budget documents.