Is Facial Recognition Software Discriminatory?

Suzanne Choney, MSNBC, December 21, 2009

A video posted on YouTube shows HP’s facial recognition software tracking the movements of a white face, but not a black one, something the video’s maker calls “racist,” but the computer giant says is definitely not.

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A Texas man, Desi Cryer, who is black, was at work in a retail store with a fellow employee who is white when the two recorded a test of the facial recognition software on a new HP computer and posted the result on YouTube.

Cryer got in front of the webcam, moved back and forth and said, “It’s supposed to follow me as I move–I’m black–I think my blackness is interfering with the computer’s ability to follow me.” The camera did not track his movements.

His co-worker, Wanda, got into the frame, and “you immediately see what I’m talking about,” Cryer said. “Now as you can see, the camera is panning to show Wanda’s face, it’s following her around . . p;. but as soon as my blackness enters the frame, it stops.”

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“We are working with our partners to learn more. The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose.

“We believe that the camera might have difficulty ‘seeing’ contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting,” the company says. “While we work on this, take a look here for more information on the impact of lighting on facial tracking software, and how to optimize your webcam experience: http://bit.ly/7HsZHD.”

The link goes to a Web page about “Using the HP TouchSmart Webcam,” which notes: “It has been reported that lighting conditions can affect the performance of the face tracking feature.

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[Editor’s Note: The YouTube experiment can be viewed here.]

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