Google Suspends Field Research that Targeted Homeless People for Facial Recognition Tests

The firm claims it was not aware of its contractor's "very disturbing" tactics.
Loukia Papadopoulos

As we recently reported, Google was accused of working with an agency that had employees walking the streets in several U.S. cities asking people, particularly homeless people, if they wanted to sell their facial data for $5 gift certificates. The story was first reported by the New York Daily News.


Pulling the plug

Now it seems the firm has pulled the plug on its controversial field research. The New York Times has reported that, after reading the Daily News’ story, Google immediately suspended the program and opened an investigation on the matter.

“We’re taking these claims seriously,” said a Google spokesman in a statement. Google admitted it had hired a staffing agency named Randstad to collect a diverse sample of faces. 

“Our goal in this case has been to ensure we have a fair and secure feature that works across different skin tones and face shapes,” said Google executives in an email sent to The New York Times.

However, they explained that they found the tactics described in the Daily News’ story “very disturbing.” And revealed that Google had told the agency to be “truthful and transparent” with volunteers in the study.

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Transparency desired

“Transparency is obviously important, and it is absolutely not okay to be misleading with participants,” they stated. A Google spokesman also revealed that the volunteers’ facial scans were deleted as soon as the research was completed.

Till now, Google claims the goal behind the research was to ensure the Pixel 4’s new Face Unlock feature would not be biased against people of color, a legitime concern and a worthy goal. But did the firm go about it the wrong way?

That all depends on how much Google was aware of Randstad's dodgy techniques. If Google's spokesmen are indeed telling the truth, then the firm had no clue what was going on.

Still, in the future, Google may want to keep a closer eye on its contractors.

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