Google ends facial scanning program that was targeting homeless people

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Google Campus Logo (Image credit: Android Central)

What you need to know

  • Google is under scrutiny over tactics taken by its contractors during field research for the facial scan technology in the Pixel 4.
  • The most alarming of the revelations included that contractors were told to target dark-skinned and homeless people.
  • Google has now suspended the research and begun an investigation.

On October 4, we reported on how Google contractors had been using some questionable tactics during field research for the testing of the facial scan technology to be used in Google's new Pixel 4 smartphone. As part of the research, employees from Randstad were sent out into the field to collect facial scans of people on the street in exchange for $5.

However, according to interviews with the employees conducted by the New York Daily News, some contractors were encouraged to target dark-skinned and homeless people. The reasons for this were because the homeless would be less likely to speak to the media and could be enticed by $5 gift cards, as well as to ensure the accuracy of the technology on darker skin tones.

Since the article came out, it has caused some controversy in the cities where the research took place, such as Atlanta, where city attorney Nina Hickson wrote a scathing email asking Google for an explanation.

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.If some or all of the reporting was accurate, we would welcome your response as what corrective action has been and will be taken.

As a result, Google has decided to suspend the program and has opened an investigation calling the details in the article "very disturbing."

Speaking with The Verge, Google says, "it made sure to provide directions to its researchers to be transparent with people they approached for a facial scan", which means the shady tactics most likely originated from Randstad and not from Google.

That's further backed up by the unnamed employee stating that there was no Google manager present in Atlanta where they were told to focus on black and homeless people. The statement from Google in response reads:

We're taking these claims seriously and investigating them. The allegations regarding truthfulness and consent are in violation of our requirements for volunteer research studies and the training that we provided.

Even though Google has pressed pause on the research, it hasn't said it won't continue in the future and it still continues to pay its contractors in the meantime.

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Jason England