Google Contractor Scammed Unsuspecting Black People Into Facial Recognition Research: Report

A Google contractor tasked with improving the company's facial recognition software tricked unsuspecting black people into becoming unwitting participants in their research, according to the Daily News. Facial recognition has come under fire for being notoriously bad at identifying people of color. 

A person takes part in a Google facial recognition project. (Via the Daily News)

The contractor, Randstand, instructed their workers to target dark-skinned people, including the homeless - offering $5 gift cards if they would "Just play with the phone for a couple of minutes," without informing them that their faces were being recorded. 

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. -Daily News

Some of the TVCs say they were advised to tell black people that they were playing a "selfie game" similar to snapchat. Others were told to say things such as "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 Randstand supervisor reportedly told contractors not to tell subjects they were being recorded, according t the report. 

People wait to take part in a Google facial recognition project in Atlanta, Georgia. (Via the Daily News)

"They said to target homeless people because they’re the least likely to say anything to the media," said one former staffer. "The homeless people didn’t know what was going on at 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," said one source, who added that a video of each user was stored under every TVC's profile and periodically reviewed during performance meetings. 

According to one Daily News source, "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,’"

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.

“The phrase ‘mini-game’ was brought up a lot,” the former staffer who worked in Los Angeles said. -Daily 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," said the former LA-based staffer, adding "Basically distract them and say anything. ‘Just go ahead and hit the next button. Don’t even worry about that.’ That kind of stuff. Really just move it along. ‘Let’s go. Hit all the next buttons.'

ZDNet reported in July that a man was approached by someone in New York and asked to sell his face to Google for $5. The man said he was told the scan would be used to “improve the next generation of facial recognition phone unlocking.”

A Google spokesperson later told TheVerge the company was collecting data through “field research” to build its facial recognition feature “with robust security and performance.”

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. -Daily News

According to the report, Google managers were involved in "many aspects of the data collection" - including the mandate to go after "darker skin tones."  

Read the rest of the report here.