A New York Daily News report published Oct. 2 included accounts of Google hiring contractors, who in Atlanta, sought out Black homeless people to collect data for their new facial recognition software. Now, city officials are demanding answers.
The New York Daily News report said Randstad (No. 30 on Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity), a staffing agency Google hired, sent its contractors to cities across the U.S. and instructed them to ask Black people to participate in facial scans. An anonymous former worker said that in Atlanta they were instructed to target homeless people because they were less likely to speak to the media. Another anonymous contractor told the New York Daily News that employees were instructed to target homeless people and college students because they would likely be more interested in the $5 gift cards participants received.
Most of the key sources in the report are anonymous. Several said the process for gaining participants was coercive and misleading. They said Randstad advised contractors to rush participants through the signing of consent forms and tell them the cameras scanning their faces were not recording.
Facial recognition technology has been a fraught subject lately. It has repeatedly struggled to accurately identify dark-skinned faces. For that reason, its use in law enforcement has sparked controversy, with some cities preemptively banning its use and others instating it.
Efforts to improve the technology to prevent racialized targeting require accumulating large, diverse databases of people’s faces, which has proven controversial as well.
Google said it had been seeking volunteers to lend their faces to the database to develop software that would allow users to unlock their phones just by looking at them. A Google spokesperson told the New York Times that the company stopped the research when the New York Daily News article came out.
Nina Hickson, Atlanta’s city attorney, wrote a letter demanding answers from Google.
“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 said. “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 spokesperson told the Times that the company was taking the claims seriously and that the goal of gathering the faces was to improve their technology to make sure it worked across different facial shapes and skin tones. A New York Daily News source said a Google manager was not present when Randstad was advising the contractors to target Black homeless people.
The Google spokesperson provided an internal email to the Times, in which executives addressed the issue they called “very disturbing” and said misleading volunteers into taking part in the gathering of faces was “absolutely not okay.”
Randstad also addressed the incident in a statement, saying the goal was to obtain photos of diverse faces to aid in Google’s research. Randstad said in the statement that when it heard about possible coercive ways the contractors obtained consent from subjects, they revisited their policies.
“When these concerns were raised, the data collection project was suspended for several weeks,” the statement said. “During that time, a number of steps were taken to ensure all policies and procedures were understood by those working on the project and enforced by the team leading it. Team members involved in the project went through a retraining program.
“We take any violation of our policies seriously, just as we do the requirements and expectations of the clients we support. Accordingly, we continually look for ways to improve the performance and oversight of our team members.”