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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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16 Comments
  • Google is responsible for its contractors. This makes me not want to get the Pixel 4.
  • Why? Contractors didn't do anything wrong other than possibly violate a term of a contract. That contract told them explicitly what the researchers were allowed to do. If the researchers didn't obey, that's on them. Not Google. That's like saying Starbucks is responsible if one of their employees got drunk after work at some bar, drove home, crashed into an electric pole, and took out power for a whole country road... Starbucks didn't tell the person to go out and drink. Starbucks didn't tell that person to wreck their car into an electric pole. Just like Google didn't tell the researchers to go out and target homeless because its easier, nor told them to go scan a black guy's face because they needed to verify that the software/hardware worked on darker skin. Google didn't tell them to lie. What Google DID tell them to do, was be transparent and tell the truth. Google did everything right here. Oh, also, the fact that legally, no Google is 'not' responsible for a contractor anyway. That's why companies hire contractors... if something goes wrong, or something doesn't work, its the contractor's fault, not the Company's. The company gives a strict set of rules/needs, and the contractors are expected to follow. The company has zero to do with the contractors once that's done. Everything else is purely controlled by the contractor once the terms are set up. Similar to when you buy a video game. You bought the game, and by buying it you agree to Terms and Conditions. Violate the TaC or ToS and you lose your right to play the game. But in order to lose that right, you have to be caught doing something violating the TaC/ToS. So, for Google, this is their "hey, we caught you doing something against our Terms, GTFO".
  • Heck wait until you read about Walgreen's testing smart coolers. This will scan your face just to see what you will purchase based on your demographic as well. Dare I say targeted ads will be pinged to your smart device via location services. Other retailers are testing this as well. Then with the small RCS roll out, Smart ads can be pushed to your device as well via "Business Messaging". Anything with Google services installed has and might have this capability. So it doen't matter what android phone you have. jibe.google.com/business-messaging/ www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/01/walgreens-tests-new-smart...
  • Just 5 dollars wow
  • How many different ways are you going to post this? Obviously you want to stir the pot and get clicks
  • Gawd, PC culture run amok. Google gets good data and a homeless dude gets $5... sounds like a win/win. It's not like they were harvesting organs. Did anyone ask the homeless people if they were offended? Or maybe they were just happy to get a fiver for letting someone take their picture? Well, not anymore. Thanks PC Police!
  • This is still a #nothingburger. I was accosted by a homeless man yesterday; he probably would have loved a gift card! Better than anything I gave him.
  • Google is illuminati!
  • Eh who gives an actual flying toot about it? So what if they targeted 'the homeless' because they were less likely to speak to the media, and who cares if they targeted blacks because they needed to verify if it worked properly on darker skin.... so, flipping what? The homeless got a 5 dollar gift card, and now the 'darker skinned folks' can be assured that the facial recognition works properly for them... nothing about this is a negative in any light what so ever... Not to mention, the homeless are a trillion times more likely to accept a 5 dollar gift card for a couple of photos of their face, than any other adult walking about on the street... "oh you wanna take my picture for your company? you're gonna give me a 5 dollar starbucks gift card? Nah bro gtfa... my face is worth thousands!"... And that last line there, wtf was that? Seriously? "And still paying the contractors"? SO WHAT?! The contractors did a job, so yea, they're getting paid... They've done absolutely NOTHING wrong... If Google finds that they violated some contractual agreement, then they'll just fine/sue the crap out of the third party company and presto, all that money that was paid out, just got taken away. . . This is utterly pointless...
  • The, PC culture (mostly liberals) cares it's all about victim hood to them....
    Shame the homeless got 5 to 10 bucks for doing basically nothing and the facial technology would have gotten better..... Oh well....I guess it's off to find another victim
  • Easiest $5 those bums ever made. Too bad.
  • Next up...Google will roundoff homeless people as ingredients for it's newest product Google Soylent Green! And Elon Musk has just announced he'll shoot homeless people into space on his supper dupper shuttle with the one way goal of eventually reaching Mars in a few decades...
  • Guess we get another year of facial scan being sub par.
  • Of course., all research is done probably months ago relating to this.
  • It's funny to see liberals eating each other LOL. Alphabet Inc. helped create the "PC" crowd we have now. Actually this crowd is beyond PC.
  • I think the real question here is what the real value of the data harvested was compared to the amount the firm paid. I mean it's fairly common knowledge in tech circles that facial recognition doesn't work as well for people of color. So being proactive and trying to fix that is simply not a problem. But considering how vastly wealthy Google is and how much money perfecting these kinds of features could bring in it is totally acceptable to ask if the reimbursement was adequate. This reminds of that situation where Google would hire shady contractors that paid their employees **** for search testing.