A Google subcontractor is being scrutinized for its questionable data collection tactics. The company in question is Randstad, which hired and managed a field team of Google TVCs (Temps, Vendors, and Contractors) to gather face images from the general public. People were offered $5 gift cards in exchange for their participation, while the images were collected with a prototype phone and would be used to improve the facial recognition capabilities of the Pixel 4.
In broad strokes, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the story when it first broke in July. The exchange was voluntary and transparent, and Google has said that the program will reduce racial bias, which is a well-documented issue with multiple facial recognition algorithms.
The problem, according to several TVCs who worked on the project, is that they were encouraged to use underhanded methods to gather the desired information. They were specifically taught to obfuscate the nature of the program, and to target homeless people and college students who did not understand what they were being asked to do.
The TVCs were also trained to rush people through the consent form before they had a chance to figure it out, telling subjects that it was a “mini-game” without mentioning the fact that a video of their face was being recorded.
“It was distracting them as much as possible so they didn’t have time to realize what was going on,” one staffer told the Daily News. The staffers went on to indicate that homeless people were targeted because they were less likely to talk to the press, and were often completely unaware of the nature of the transaction.
“I feel like they wanted us to prey on the weak,” added a TVC.
Staffers were told to go after people with “darker skin tones,” although that’s to be expected if Google is looking to address racial bias in its algorithm. The bigger issue seems to be the fact that the information was gathered without informed consent, and that Randstad’s efforts to do so were deliberate.
It’s unclear to what extent Google was aware of Randstad’s aggressive collection methods. The company indicated that information would only be stored for 18 months, and could be deleted on request.
“We’re taking these claims seriously and investigating them,” said a spokesperson. “The allegations regarding truthfulness and consent are in violation of our requirements for volunteer research studies and the training that we provided.”
Face-based lock screen functionality is expected to be a major security feature of the Pixel 4.
October 3, 2019 – by Eric Weiss