Google Targeted Darker Skin Tones For Data Capture, Bought People’s Faces For $5 Gift Card And Said It Was A Game

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Written by Dana Sanchez
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Image: Mike MacKenzie/Flickr

Google contractors targeted people of darker skin tones with the lure of $5 gift cards and hid the fact that their faces were being recorded for a facial recognition database, sources told the New York Daily News.

The company’s goal is to build a diverse database by funding facial recognition technology, so products like the biometric features on its upcoming Pixel 4 smartphone don’t suffer from racial bias.

In the U.S., where 50 percent of us have our faces in databases that may be available to law enforcement, algorithmic bias has had tragic consequences for Black people and people of color, according to Brian Brackeen, founder of Miami facial recognition firm Kairos.

It’s part of a bigger problem — technology’s diversity problem — where algorithms written by mostly white men are biased and have a hard time understanding different skin colors, different shades and genders.

But its Google’s dubious data collection tactics — not the technology — that’s attracting attention to the effort. Several people who worked for the project told the New York Daily News that google used questionable and misleading methods to buy peoples faces.

Google isn’t alone in using questionable data-collection methods. Facial recognition technology has been getting better thanks to millions of pictures that have been collected of people, unbeknownst to them. Companies and researchers are compiling dozens of databases of people’s faces without their knowledge, the New York Times reported in July.

Teams of Google workers were sent to target homeless people in Atlanta, students on college campuses around the U.S. and people attending BET Awards parties in Los Angeles, among others.

Workers known as Google TVCs — an acronym for temps, vendors or contractors — said they were paid through third-party employment firm Randstad.

The sources said a Randstad supervisor told them not reveal to subjects that they were being recorded. They were told to distract and lie to collect data. Some were told they were playing something like a “selfie game” similar to Snapchat.

One said workers were told to say things like, “Just play with the phone for a couple minutes and get a gift card,” and, “We have a new app, try it and get $5.”

Photos of the device used to capture facial recognition data showed a phone encased in a large, rugged metal frame and sealed with tamper-detection stickers and security screws.

“They said to target homeless people because they’re the least likely to say anything to the media,” an ex-staffer said.

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Apple also collected facial recognition data ahead of its Face ID launch.

The problem with facial recognition technology is that there’s insufficient training data to teach the algorithm what women are vs. men, and what people of darker shades are vs lighter shades, Brackeen said after a panel discussion at SXSW 2018.

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