TAMPA, Fla. — As Congress continues its probe into ID.me, a company contracted to verify identities for access to critical government services, like unemployment, a former employee is speaking exclusively with the ABC Action News I-Team.
Over the past year, the I-Team has revealed the technology meant to prevent unemployment fraud blocking legitimate applicants, privacy concerns, and ID.me admitting it uses a type of facial recognition its own CEO called problematic.
The former employee contacted the I-Team to speak out about the company, the culture, and the questions she said the public deserves answers to. ABC Action News agreed not to name or show her face in the interview out of her fear of retaliation.
“The reason why I want to speak up now is because one of our core values was, ‘Own your mistakes so you can learn from them’,” she said. “I feel like this is one of the moments where we should own our mistakes so we can learn from them.”
The former employee was terminated earlier this year and told the I-Team this isn’t about being disgruntled.
“I just feel like I should say something. Because I’ve always just had an inkling that something about ID.me wasn’t right. And I feel like this is my time to do so,” she said.
The former employee said working at the company took a “huge emotional toll” on her.
“To know that these people are emailing saying, ‘I’m going to kill myself’ or ‘I haven’t paid rent in five months’ like can you please help, can someone just say something? It’s a lot,” she said. “It was hours upon hours of people just waiting to talk with someone. And then a lot of those people said that they would get kicked out after waiting so long.”
She told the I-Team that thousands of emails were waiting on a reply. Some of them were nearly a year old.
“I felt like ridiculous reaching out to them a year later being like, 'Hi, did you still need assistance?' Sometimes they would be like, ‘yes’, other times they would be like… ‘I’ve waited this long, how dare you say anything to me now.’,” the former employee said. “I knew that I wasn’t helping everyone that we say that we were helping.”
Floridians desperate to access unemployment benefits — and later, the documents needed to file their taxes — then turned to ABC Action News for help after they couldn’t get through ID.me’s verification process and could not reach a person to help.
Facial recognition is one of the tools ID.me uses to verify people are who they say they are. The former employee the I-Team spoke with said she saw accounts flagged for fraud because the system grouped together people with similar features.
“When I go and look at the face match, it says it’s like 200-300 accounts attached to it, but once I start scrolling through the pictures, I’m noticing that these are all just white women. Or these are all just, you know, African-American women who have glasses, or these are all just older men who have started losing their hair,” she said.
An ID.me spokesperson told the I-Team a “duplicate face match” alerts on less than one in 1,000 users and said, “This vital fraud prevention control stopped a huge number of fraudulent actors during the pandemic from using stolen information and their own face to verify large numbers of accounts.”
ID.me said five states have credited the company with preventing a combined $238 billion in fraud. The Department of Economic Opportunity told the I-Team it estimates ID.me helped to prevent $23 billion in fraud in Florida.
“Yeah you are helping some people, those that are complaining on social media or those that have gotten scammed, you know, I’m not saying that they don’t. But in the grand scheme of things, there are so many more people that are not being helped and you’re just grouping them into a category because you think it may be fraud,” the former employee told the I-Team.
Congress recently submitted a list of questions to ID.me, including asking how many facial scans the company obtained, who was flagged, wait times, and the number of complaints.
An ID.me spokesperson told the I-Team, "Nearly 90 percent of users verify their identity in minutes in the self-service process. For a small number of ID.me users who require assurance through a video chat, average wait times from 4/1 - 4/30 were 23 minutes and average wait times from 5/1 - 5/7 were 19 minutes."
“I think that’s where Congress is trying to put in place some accountability measures,” Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, who leads the Brookings Institution’s artificial intelligence initiative, focusing on equity and fairness in new technologies, said.
Turner Lee told the I-Team it’s “horrifying” to see facial recognition being used in order to access government benefits.
“We’re seeing more governments actually rely on these technologies with one caveat — they’re not fully tested and explainable on a variety of populations. When you look at facial recognition — we’ve got some challenges. People like me who are darker skin in complexion or change their hair are not always identifiable. And so when governments decide to take on these technologies, they’re not always aware of the technical implications and how it actually may play out among everyday people who may not necessarily be represented in the technology,” she said.
The IRS dropped requiring facial recognition to verify identities through ID.me after facing public backlash. Meanwhile, Florida has stood by the controversial technology. And there is no option to verify your identity in person in Florida.
- Florida DEO stands by ID.me's controversial facial recognition technology to verify IDs as the IRS drops the requirement
“We’re going to see facial recognition technologies, more broadly, be challenged,” Turner Lee said, pointing to the IRS as an example.
Turner Lee said there is still a “huge” digital divide in the United States.
“Until we are there, we need alternatives,” she said. “Governments should not be afraid to say, when it’s not working, to pull back.”
A group of Democratic senators have also asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate evidence of deceptive statements ID.me made about the type of facial recognition it uses.
ID.me’s former employee the I-Team spoke with said the idea behind the company to verify your identity online in a one-stop-shop is “something great.”
“I think that this could be something that could work, later on, it’s just that we all have to come together and make sure that it works and we get what we need out of it as well.”
When the I-Team asked what ID.me’s CEO Blake Hall sees as the biggest challenge for the company, a spokesperson said, "We hope to spur a broader national discussion of the tremendous potential of ID.me and alternatives to provide online access to the government for many Americans who lack a credit history, may not have a phone, or who are unable to access benefits they deserve."
"We are pleased to have helped government agencies including in Florida dramatically lower government benefits fraud by organized criminals during the pandemic. The FTC reported identity theft tied to government benefits increased by 2,920% during the pandemic. ID.me adheres to the federal guidelines for identity verification and login while providing services to public sector agencies. These standards have proved remarkably effective at preventing fraud. Five states have credited ID.me with preventing $238 billion in fraud.
In the Spring of 2020, the state of Florida faced a large and growing unemployment claim backlog. The claims backlog represented a large number of claimants getting “stuck” as the state did not have the resources to review claims in a timely manner. As the backlog grew larger over time, the state faced mounting pressure from the press and claimants to take action. On June 29, 2020, ID.me began providing Florida with identity verification services to reduce fraudulent claims for both Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Unemployment Insurance. The result of the partnership was a dramatic reduction in backlogged claims and rapid access to funds for individuals who were stuck.
These early results with Florida DEO showed two things. First, the automated fraud tools the states used did in fact identify a significant amount of fraud. Second, the automated fraud tools also flagged a huge amount of legitimate applicants who were wrongly categorized as fraudulent. ID.me’s process enabled the states to separate those two groups with much higher rates of granularity to unblock legitimate applicants. Later, ID.me would identify a large amount of fraud that had gone undetected by these same algorithms that flagged valid users, too. Secretary Jonathan Satter said: ”ID.me has made it possible for the state of Florida to efficiently and successfully validate thousands of identities to ensure prompt and accurate processing of unemployment assistance claims. The magic is that we don’t need to manually touch the claimant…in dealing with millions of claims, any tool that can automate the process is helpful.”
Secretary Jonathan Satter from Florida said: "As an early adopter of ID.me, the taxpayers of the State of Florida owe a debt of gratitude to the team at ID.me. Not only did your efforts combat fraud, waste and abuse, but your technology enabled our citizens in need to obtain their benefits when needed most, when our antiquated systems were crushed by unprecedented and overwhelming demand. Thank you Blake and team, you made a difference in the lives of your fellow Americans."
*NOTE: Jonathan Satter resigned more than a year ago, in February 2021