Google suspends controversial ‘field research’ program that reportedly targeted black homeless people in Atlanta

By Shubham Sharma | Published on Oct 05 2019
Google suspends controversial ‘field research’ program that reportedly targeted black homeless people in Atlanta

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HIGHLIGHTS

Google has suspended its program for collecting face data of people for improving face unlock on its upcoming Pixel 4 phones.

The people collecting face data for Google’s ‘field research’ project were reportedly told to target black people, including homeless people in Atlanta, US.

Google hired a third-party employment firm called Randstad, who apparently told the TVCs to target people of colour and use dubious tactics to obtain data.

Machine Learning systems suffering from AI bias or algorithm bias is a very real thing. The only way to reduce this bias and improve AI is to use good datasets for training it, and back in June 2019, Google confirmed to The Verge that it was doing just that with its ‘field research’ program. Google was upfront about the process, which is a good thing, and said that it is collecting face recognition data “to improve the next generation of facial recognition phone unlocking.” However, the company is shutting down the project after a couple of new reports surfaced claiming that the company is tactfully targeting dark-skinned homeless people with its data collection process. 

A New York Daily News report recently claimed that the company’s data collection process for face recognition is targeting people of colour. As per the report, the company’s temps, vendors or contractors (TVCs) being sent out on the field to collect face data were being paid through a third-party employment firm called Randstad, who apparently told the TVCs to target people of colour and use dubious tactics to get the data. What’s even more concerning is that the TVCs were specifically told, by Randstad, to go after black people in Atlanta, including homeless black people, students on college campuses around the US and attendees of the BET Awards festivities in Los Angeles, and people in other areas.

The aforementioned report by the Daily News is said to be based on information received from several people who worked for Google’s face data collection project. These people said that the TVCs were advised to approach a person and not reveal the fact that they are collecting facial data and even lie to obtain as much data as possible. The data collection agents were also told to classify the face scanning process as a “selfie game” similar to Snapchat. One of the informants told the Daily News that these TVCs could also 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.” A Randstad supervisor reportedly instructed the data collectors to avoid telling the subjects they were being recorded.

While it seems like Randstand, and not Google, had a major role in dubious data collection, the temp hires revealed that they had ID cards that would get them inside Google’s Venice Beach headquarters. A former Randstad employee reveals that a team of data collectors were sent to Atlanta to “specifically” target black people, including homeless black people. “They said to target homeless people because they’re the least likely to say anything to the media,” the ex-employee told the Daily. “The homeless people didn’t know what was going on at all.”  Similarly, the TVCs also targeted college students and you can read the entire Daily News report here

While Google hired the staffing agency, it’s not clear how much Google’s employees knew about the whole process. Additionally, the ex-staffer says that while a Google manager knew about data collection, he wasn't aware of Randstad's employees instructing TVCs to focus on homeless back people in Atlanta. 

Google has suspended the face data collection project and the company is said to be investigating the process after the Daily News article was published. “We’re taking these claims seriously,” the Google spokesperson told NY Times. Atlanta’s city attorney, Nina Hickson also sent a strong-worded letter to the company asking 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,” the letter addressed to Google’s legal and policy chief Kent Walker reads. 

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Shubham Sharma

Working on a miniaturised version of the Arc Reactor.

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