Drumbl on Social Media and Tax Enforcement

Michelle Lyon Drumbl (Washington and Lee University School of Law) has posted “#Audited: Social Media and Tax Enforcement” (Oregon Law Review, Forthcoming) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

With limited resources and a diminished budget, it is not surprising that the Internal Revenue Service would seek new tools to maximize its enforcement efficiency. Automation and technology provide new opportunities for the IRS, and in turn, present new concerns for taxpayers. In December 2018, the IRS signaled its interest in a tool to access publicly available social media profiles of individuals in order to “expedite IRS case resolution for existing compliance cases.” This has important implications for taxpayer privacy.

Moreover, the use of social media in tax enforcement may pose a particular harm to an especially vulnerable population: low-income taxpayers. Social science research shows us that the poor are already over-surveilled, and researchers have identified various ways in which algorithmic screening and data mining can result in discrimination. What, then, are the implications of social media mining in the context of tax enforcement, especially given that the IRS already audits the poor at a rate similar to which it audits the highest earning individuals? How can these concerns be reconciled with the need for tax enforcement?

This article questions the appropriateness of the IRS further automating its enforcement tactics in ways that may harm already vulnerable individuals, makes proposals to balance the use of any such tactics with respect for taxpayer rights, and considers how tax lawyers should advise their clients in an era of diminishing privacy.