Tech giant Google is facing scrutiny amid reports that it hired contractors who used tricky tactics to secretly record and collect biometric data from dark-skinned homeless people in Atlanta, Georgia.
The bombshell claims are part of recent report by the New York Daily News, which detailed the company’s nefarious plot to add more faces of color to its facial recognition database. The goal? To improve the technology’s ability to more accurately identify non-white faces.
The controversial software has been known to misidentify women and people of color at higher rates than whites. A 2018 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology find that facial recognition falsely matched the faces of Black women almosts 10 times as often as those of white women.
In an effort to avoid that pitfall, Google bolstered efforts to diversify its database to ensure its software wasn’t racially biased. However, this new report suggests the company may have gone overboard.
The outlet spoke with several sources familiar with the project who said they were “specifically” instructed to target African-Americans, as well as homeless African-Americans. According to the Daily News, Google brought on temp agency Randstad to help collect data for its Pixel 4 smartphone’s facial recognition screen unlock feature.
As part of its plan, sources told the newspaper Randstad would dispatch teams of data collectors to Atlanta to secretly scan the faces of homeless people.
“They said to target homeless people because they’re the least likely to say anything to the media,” a former Randstad employee told the newspaper, adding: “The homeless people didn’t know what was going on at all.”
In addition to vagrants, the data collectors would also target unsuspecting students at colleges across the U.S., attendees of the BET Awards festivities in Los Angeles, California, and other random folks on the street, the source said.
Contractors reportedly scoured Atlanta and other U.S. cities for potential face scan participants, handing out $5 gift cards in exchange for digitally scanning people’s likeness — in secret. In many cases, the workers never fully explained that they would be recording the person’s face or that they were working for Google.
Rather, they were told to characterize the scan as a sort of “selfie game.”
One source told the Daily News they were instructed to say things like: “Just play with the phone for a couple minutes and get a gift card,” or, “We have a new app, try it and get $5.” When a suspicious person would ask whether the phone was recording, workers said they were told to respond, “No, not really.”
This isn’t the first time Google has used this sort of means to collect facial recognition data. The teach giant has reportedly been conducting “field research” since July and acknowledged using gift cards as an incentive.
However, the company said it will look into allegations that staffers were told to use deceptive practices to get folks to participate.
“We are taking these claims seriously and investigating them,” a Google spokesman told the Daily News. “The allegations regarding truthfulness and consent are in violation of our requirements for volunteer research studies and the training that we provided.”