Google reportedly targeted people with 'darker skin' to improve facial recognition

Contract workers went after homeless people and college students, according to a new report.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
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Google targeted people of color -- including homeless people and college students -- to help improve its facial recognition software, according to a report Wednesday by the New York Daily News. In exchange for face scans, the company gave volunteers $5 gift cards. 

The project was reportedly an effort to improve biometric features on Google's devices like facial unlock features for the company's Pixel phones. Google wanted to collect data on people from different backgrounds to make sure the phones recognized a wide range of skin tones and facial features.

Google partnered with the staffing agency Randstad to have its temps collect the facial scans, according to the Daily News. The staffers, who were contractors working on behalf of Google, were sent to Atlanta to find homeless people, US college campuses and other events including the BET Awards in Los Angeles, the report said. 

The contractors were also told to avoid telling volunteers they were being recorded, and to mislead people into face scans by telling them they were playing a "selfie game," the Daily News said. 

A Google spokesman said the company is "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.

"We regularly conduct volunteer research studies," the spokesman said. "For recent studies involving the collection of face samples for machine learning training, there are two goals. First, we want to build fairness into Pixel 4's face unlock feature. It's critical we have a diverse sample, which is an important part of building an inclusive product. And second, security. Face unlock will be a powerful new security measure, and we want to make sure it protects as wide a range of people as possible."

Randstad didn't respond to a request for comment. 

The controversy comes two weeks before Google is expected to unveil new hardware devices, including its flagship Pixel 4 smartphone. This isn't the first time tech giants have offered money  to volunteers in exchange for personal data. Earlier this year, it was revealed that both Google and Facebook offered consumers gift cards to install apps that gave the company access to the information on their phones. Amazon in May offered $25 to people in New York City who would undergo a 3D body scan for an undisclosed project. 

Google's algorithms have been criticized in the past for racial bias. In 2015, a software developer called out Google Photos for labeling photos of him and his friends, who are black, as gorillas. Google apologized and said it was "working on long-term fixes."