Posted on October 4, 2019

Google Facial Recognition Project Used Shady Ways to Find ‘Darker-Skinned’ People

Ginger Adams Otis and Nancy Dillon, New York Daily News, October 3, 2019

Tech giant Google wants your face — especially if you’ve got “darker skin.”

To get it, the company has funded a facial recognition project that’s targeting people of color with dubious tactics, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the project told the Daily News.

The company’s goal is to build a massively diverse database, ostensibly so products like the biometric features on its upcoming Pixel 4 smartphone don’t suffer from a racial bias.

In the past, facial recognition technology has notoriously had a harder time identifying people with darker skin.

Google wants to avoid that pitfall — so much so it paid to have hired temps go out to collect face scans from a variety of people on the street using $5 gift cards as incentive.

A Google spokesperson acknowledged the goal of the data collection.


But several people who worked for the project spoke to The News in lengthy interviews and said Google’s ravenous appetite for data led to questionable and misleading methods.

They said teams were dispatched to target homeless people in Atlanta, unsuspecting students on college campuses around the U.S. and attendees of the BET Awards festivities in Los Angeles, among other places.

The workers known as Google TVCs — an acronym to specify temps, vendors or contractors — told The News they were paid through a third-party employment firm called Randstad.

They said Randstad project leaders specifically told the TVCs to go after people of color, conceal the fact that people’s faces were being recorded and even lie to maximize their data collections.

Some were told to gather the face data by characterizing the scan as a “selfie game” similar to Snapchat, they said.

One said workers were told to say things like, “Just play with the phone for a couple minutes and get a gift card,” and, “We have a new app, try it and get $5.”

The sources said they were instructed by a Randstad supervisor not to tell subjects they were being recorded.


TVCs were encouraged to rush subjects through survey questions and a consent agreement and walk away if people started to get suspicious, the for-hire workers said.

“One of the days of training was basically building a vocabulary that distracts the user from the actual task at hand as much as possible,” one of the former workers told The News.


“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,” he said.


Google already has acknowledged that it sent people out to ask for voluntary scans in exchange for $5 gift cards.


Speaking to The News, the people who worked on the project out of Los Angeles said they were encouraged by Randstad to think of themselves as potential full-time Google hires if they hit their daily quota of 3-D face scans.


One former employee said Randstad sent a team to Atlanta “specifically” to target black people there, including homeless black people.

“They said to target homeless people because they’re the least likely to say anything to the media,” the ex-staffer said. {snip}


Another former TVC said team members in California were specifically told they could entice cash-strapped subjects by mentioning a state law that says gift cards less than $10 can be exchanged for cash.


The former TVC said college campuses were considered “the goldmine or the unicorn” because young students typically live on tight budgets and respond to gift cards.


Part of the rushing was meant to keep subjects from reading the consent form that must be clicked for the scan to be counted, the TVC said.

An image of the agreement used several months ago and shared with The News appeared to give Google vast leeway with the face data.

It said Google could keep the scans “as long as needed to fulfill the purposes which is expected to be about five years.”

It also gave Google the right to “aggregate the research data” in a way that makes subjects anonymous, and “there is no limit to how long or in what manner Google may retain, use or share the aggregate data.”

Perhaps most unsettling, the consent agreement gave Google the right to “retain, use or share non-personally identifying or aggregate data without limitation for any purpose,” and said the data could be processed “outside the country,” including places “where you may have fewer rights.”