The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is looking to get its hands on a product that will help its agents investigate tax dodgers who’ve set up shop on social media, according to a request posted to the federal government’s procurement website, FedBizOpps.
The post indicates that the IRS, whose under-equipped enforcement agents ferret out financial crime related to the tax system, is looking for a new way to investigate potential tax cheats based on their social media usage, citing as one example the ubiquity of online stores. The IRS currently has no “formal tool,” it says, to comb through social media feeds. It also says that its agents are currently largely prohibited from viewing or accessing “publicly available information on social media sites.”
“Businesses and individuals increasingly use social media to advertise, promote, and sell products and services,” says the request, filed by the IRS’s national procurement office. “For example, taxpayers can create ‘online stores’ on social networking sites free of cost. Much of this information is unrestricted, allowing the public, businesses and various governmental agencies to discover taxpayers’ locations and income sources.”
The request also strives to differentiate between what the agency says it needs such a tool for and more overtly dubious uses, such as the online surveillance of taxpayers. The agency says if it does move forward and adopt a new tool for combing sites like Facebook or Twitter, it would not be used to cultivate new auditing leads (emphasis ours):
The IRS emphasizes that this tool, if the agency decides to pursue the use of it, would be done to assist with previously identified tax compliance cases. The IRS respects taxpayer rights, and such a tool would not be used to search the internet or social media sites for purposes of identifying or initiating new tax audits.
An IRS spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment due to the government shutdown.
There’s little expectation of privacy when it comes to public social media posts, but law enforcement has butted heads with social media companies in the past. In late 2015, for example, Facebook and Twitter both severed ties with companies that had offered police specialized tools for monitoring users, such as Geofeedia, though the two companies did so for entirely different reasons. While Twitter cited an internal policy against aiding in the surveillance of its users, Facebook banned a handful of companies, it said, due to a policy against working with data brokers.
However, despite the companies’ efforts, numerous such tools remained accessible to police and federal law enforcement. Some were able to carry on simply by carefully branding themselves as “threat assessment” tools versus “social media monitoring,” despite basically performing the same service. Those companies that were banned also tended to be smaller startups—ones that flagrantly advertised their ability to vacuum up huge swaths of data on citizens who were not suspected of crimes. (Several highlighted their ability, for instance, to monitor #BlackLivesMatter protests.)
A recent investigation by ProPublica, which was co-published by the New York Times, revealed that the IRS is struggling to perform its duties to catch tax cheats thanks to considerable cuts imposed by the Republican-controlled Congress. Reporters found that the agency’s criminal division had wrangled roughly 25 percent fewer cases last year as opposed to 2010. Separately, between 2010 and 2017, IRS audits fell 42 percent.
The IRS’s enforcement staff has also been cut by a third since 2011, when Republicans repeatedly slashed its budget—this even though the IRS estimates roughly $125 billion in government revenue is lost each year by tax-dodging business owners.
The nation’s most infamous tax cheat, of course, currently occupies a residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., and his use of social media is indeed prolific.
Correction: Despite previous reporting here, there is no government agency called the “Internet Revenue Service.” We regret the error.