Google Trolls BET Awards and the Homeless to (Shadily) Get Dark-Skinned Faces for Pixel 4 Technology

Photo: Leon Neal (Getty Images)

Tech behemoth and Big Brother is Watching purveyor Google—through a third party company—dispatched workers to blackety-black events like the 2019 BET Awards in Los Angeles to get darker-skinned faces for a facial recognition database, but often used skeevy and immoral tactics to do so, according to an explosive report by the New York Daily News.

Now, on the face of it (ha), Google opening up its facial recognition technology—which in general struggles to correctly identify black faces at rates five to 10 times the rate of whites—to black people is a good thing. In the past, the company has faced criticism for its image labeling technology, which mistook black faces for gorillas in image searches (a problem, Google reportedly never fixed, but instead just removed gorillas from its labeling technology.) In general, there needs to be more of a black presence on the back-end so that soap dispensers won’t be labeled racist.

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In this case, the company “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,” reports the News. The goal allegedly was to have a diverse sample to “build fairness into Pixel 4’s face unlock feature,” according to a company spokesperson.

In order to do so, according to two sources, the company’s 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 homeless were further incentivized by being told that the gift cards could be exchanged for cash.

Moreover, volunteers were trained or instructed not to tell people what their faces were being used for, or to change the subject or even abort the mission when asked questions.

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 The News reports:

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.”

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The duplicity gets worse, y’all:

“We were told not to tell (people) that it was video, even though it would say on the screen that a video was taken,” a source said, adding that video of each user was stored under each TVC’s profile and periodically reviewed in performance meetings.

“If the person were to look at that screen after the task had been completed, and say, ‘Oh, was it taking a video?’… we were instructed to say, ‘Oh it’s not really,’” the source said.

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.

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A Google spokesperson acknowledged the goal of the data collection. Google also confirmed that it sent people out to ask for voluntary scans in exchange for $5 gift cards.

“We regularly conduct volunteer research studies. 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,” said a spokesperson.

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“Pixel 4’s 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,” they added.

There’s yet another issue, though.

The consent form signed at the end of the facial collection gives Google the right to “retain, use or share non-personally identifying or aggregate data without limitation for any purpose,” and adds that the data could be processed “outside the country,” including places “where you may have fewer rights.”

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God forbid it goes to law enforcement.

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The agreement also allows the company to retain the images for at least five years, though Google claims it would only keep the images for about 18 months and can be deleted upon request.

Again, this might sound fairly innocuous until you realize that the majority of those folks who participated did so unwittingly...and for a mere 5 bucks.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.