Eric Watkins said he filed for unemployment benefits in Colorado after being fired from his job as a software quality-assurance engineer in April. However, he has yet to receive a penny of the $6,490 he claimed he was entitled to, and he is unsure when he will.
Watkins, a self-described privacy advocate whose mother and grandmother used to shred personal information when he was growing up, said he is unwilling to go through the identity verification process that his state now requires, which includes having his face analyzed by a small company called ID.me.
He wrote a scathing letter to his state’s unemployment office, criticizing ID.me’s service and stating that he would not use it because of his privacy concerns. In response, he received an automated message from the agency, which stated, “If you do not verify your identity soon, your claim will be disqualified, and no further benefit payments will be issued.” (A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said manual identity verification is only used “as a last resort” for unemployment claimants under the age of 18 — ID.me doesn’t work with minors — and those who face “technical barriers.” )
Watkins said he felt compelled to choose between the privacy he thought he was entitled to and the money he was owed. Even so, when it comes to ID.me, he has a clear answer: “I don’t want anything to do with them.”
Watkins is one of millions of people across the country who have been told to use ID.me and its facial recognition software to get unemployment benefits. A growing number of US states, including Colorado, California, and New York, have turned to ID.me in the hopes of reducing the number of fraudulent claims for state and federal benefits that arose alongside a flood of legitimate unemployment claims during the pandemic.
According to ID.me, 27 state unemployment agencies had signed contracts with the company as of this month, with 25 of them already utilizing its technology. ID.me has said that it is in talks with seven more companies. Several federal agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service, use ID.me to verify user identities.
The company’s rapid advancement at state unemployment agencies is the latest chapter in the story of facial recognition software’s rapid spread across the US. It also demonstrates how, during the pandemic, this contentious technology gained traction and now appears destined to remain a part of our lives for the foreseeable future.