Google contractors allegedly offered darker-skinned homeless people $5 dollar gift cards to scan their faces for facial recognition software

A homeless woman sits bundled against the cold as she begs for handouts on East 42nd Street in the Manhattan borough of New York

A homeless woman sits bundled against the cold as she begs for handouts on East 42nd Street in the Manhattan borough of New York
Thomson Reuters
  • Google is facing criticism after a company it contracted with allegedly secretly recorded the faces of homeless people to improve its facial recognition software without disclosing they were working with the tech giant.
  • The allegations are part of a New York Daily News story, where multiple sources who claimed to have worked as data collectors say they were told to specifically target homeless people and people of color.
  • The sources claim they would offer homeless people $5 gift cards to record them. In some cases, the sources told the Daily News, they were instructed to conceal the fact that they were recording these people entirely.

Google is facing criticism for allegedly hiring contractors that used deceptive practices to secretly record the faces of dark-skinned homeless people in Atlanta. This was allegedly done in the pursuit of adding more dark-skinned faces to the company’s facial recognition database to increase its ability to accurately identify non-white faces, according to the The New York Daily News

Several sources who supposedly worked on the data collection project claim Google hired the consulting firm Randstad to collect the images with the goal of increasing the accuracy of the Pixel 4 phone’s facial recognition screen unlock feature. To do this, the sources claim, Randstad sent data collectors to Atlanta and specifically targeted homeless people without fully explaining the fact that they were recording their faces or that they worked for Google.

Facial recognition technology has long struggled to accurately identify the faces of women and people of color, in part, due to a glut of predominantly white faces in databases.

The report claims Randstad explicitly told data collectors to conceal the fact they were recording and advised them to lie to maximize data collection. In one example of the alleged subterfuge, Randstad employees were allegedly instructed to tell the people they were recording that they were actually playing a “selfie game.” When suspicious homeless people would ask if the phone cameras were recording, one of the sources says they were instructed to respond, “No, not really.”

For months, Google has been conducting what it calls,

For months, Google has been conducting what it calls, “field research” to collect a diverse range of faces that they hope will increase the accuracy of the facial recognition technology in its new Pixel phone.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

While most facial recognition technology companies agree work needs to be done to collect a more diverse set of faces, the new report suggests Google’s contractor may have gone a step too far.

Neither Randstad nor Google immediately responded to Insider’s request for comment, but Google told the Daily News they were investigating the claims.

“We’re taking these claims seriously and investigating them,” a Google spokesperson 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.”

Google has been conducting “field research” where they pay people for their face scans for months

The revelation that Google is paying people for their biometric data is neither new nor necessary nefarious on its own. Google contractors have been conducting “field research” since early July, where contractors scour major American city streets handing out $5 gift cards in exchange for face scans. In those examples though, Google had not specifically targeted homeless people and participants were aware they were being recorded.

While most major tech companies have rushed to embrace facial reaction technology in recent years, critics have sounded some alarm bells. Last year, Amazon’s “Rekognition” system made headlines after it mistakenly identified 28 dark-skinned members of congress as criminals. Since then, multiple examples of bias and misuse have occurred and number major political figures, including New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have expressed concerns about the growing technology. In May, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban the technology from city use entirely.