Google Reportedly Tricked Black Homeless People To Collect 'Darker Skin Tones' For Their Artificial Intelligence Database
A third-party contractor used problematic techniques to collect Black faces for Google’s artificial intelligence database.
The New York Daily News published an exposé on October 2, 2019, detailing the methods Randstad used to collect data. Randstad hired people as TVCs (temps, vendors or contractors) to help Google find people to include in its facial recognition database.
The temps were dispatched to areas with a large Black population including Atlanta, Georiga, the BET Awards and college campuses to collect faces. The workers were told to target people with “darker skin tones,” especially the homeless community, assuming they were less likely to ask questions.
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The workers were instructed to tell people to “play with the phone for a couple of minutes and get a gift card. We have a new app, try it and get $5.”
“We were told not to tell [people] that it was video, even though it would say on the screen that a video was taken,” one source told Daily News. “If the person were to look at that screen after the task had been completed, and say, ‘Oh, was it taking a video?' we were instructed to say, ‘Oh it’s not really.’”
“They said to target homeless people because they’re the least likely to say anything to the media,” the ex-staffer said. “The homeless people didn’t know what was going on at all.”
The TVCs were also ordered to tell homeless people the cards could be traded for cash.
“They even told us, ‘If they don’t like coffee or something like that, you could tell homeless people that you can trade in the gift card for $5 cash,” a source said. “They were very aware of all the ways you could incentivize a person and really hone in on the context of the person to make it almost irresistible.”
There was a consent form for people to sign but the TVCs were trained to rush them through the process.
“It was a lot of basically sensory overloading the person into getting it done as quickly as possible and distracting them as much as possible so they didn’t even really have time to realize what was going on,” a former employee said.
The New York Times reports Atlanta city attorney Nina Hickson wrote a letter to Kent Walker, Google’s legal and policy chief, demanding justification of their tactics.
“The possibility that members of our most vulnerable populations are being exploited to advance your company’s commercial interest is profoundly alarming for numerous reasons,” she wrote. “If some or all of the reporting was accurate, we would welcome your response as what corrective action has been and will be taken.”
A Google spokesman attempted to explain their tactics which have currently suspended.
“We regularly conduct volunteer research studies. For recent studies involving the collection of face samples for machine learning training, there are two goals,” the statement said. “First, we want to build fairness into Pixel 4’s face unlock feature. It’s critical we have a diverse sample, which is an important part of building an inclusive product. And second, security. Pixel 4’s face unlock will be a powerful new security measure, and we want to make sure it protects as wide a range of people as possible.”
The spokesperson added the company plans to investigate the ethics concerns.
“We’re taking these claims seriously and investigating them,” the spokesperson said. “The allegations regarding truthfulness and consent are in violation of our requirements for volunteer research studies and the training that we provided.”