Technology 4 min read

Google Uses Suspicious Methods to Collect People's Facial Data

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

A recent report from New York Daily News revealed the ‘dubious tactics’ Google is allegedly using to gather the facial data of people.

Google’s data-gathering project first made headlines last July. Back then, a spokesperson for the tech giant confirmed with The Verge that the purpose of the project is to improve the face unlock feature of its upcoming Pixel 4 device.

Several news outlets reported that Google employees were roving the streets of different U.S. cities, scanning people’s faces in exchange for $5 gift certificates.

The goal of the company is to create a diverse database containing massive biometric information of people. This is to ensure that Pixel 4’s biometrics features won’t suffer from racial bias.

A Google spokesperson was quoted as saying:

“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.”

Buying Facial Data For $5

The News sources revealed that the Silicon Valley giant’s project has been targeting people with darker complexions, homeless individuals, and university students, among others.

In lengthy interviews with The News, several people who worked for the project claimed that Google’s been using questionable and misleading methods to gather data.

The company has allegedly hired temporary workers called Google TVCs, which are paid through a third-party agency known as Randstad.

To maximize their data collections, Randstad project leads have specifically instructed the temps to lie to people and conceal the fact that they’re recording people’s faces.

Some temps were told to scheme people into believing that they were conducting a “selfie game.” Google TVCs were also instructed to say things like, “Just play with the phone for a couple of minutes and get a gift card,” and “We have a new app, try it and get $5.”

One of the sources said:

“We were told not to tell (people) that it was video, even though it would say on the screen that a video was taken. 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.”

If people start to ask questions or become suspicious, the TVCs were told to walk away. That’s after rushing the subjects into answering survey questions and a consent agreement.

A former TVC from Los Angeles also revealed:

“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. The phrase ‘mini-game’ was brought up a lot.”

Google’s Data Collection is ‘Troubling’

The News sources also said they were given ID cards to access Google’s Venice Beach headquarters. Most of the Google managers were regularly seen on conference calls and were actively involved in many aspects of the facial data collection project.

According to the consent agreement obtained by The News, the facial scans will be used for “as long as needed to fulfill the purposes which are expected to be about five years.”

The consent also mentioned that Google reserves the right to aggregate the research data and that there’s no limit to how long or in what manner the company can retain, use, or share the aggregated data.

The ex-TVCs believe that the consent agreement is troubling since the data could be used for anything. However, Google said that the facial data they collected will only be kept for a maximum of 18 months and can be deleted upon request.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said:

“We’re 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.”

This is not the first time that Google’s been criticized for its data collection practices. Last month, it’s been reported that several U.S. state attorneys were preparing to launch an antitrust investigation against the company.

Read More: Google’s Privacy Sandbox Will Limit Advertisers’ Access To User Data

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Chelle Fuertes

Chelle is the Product Management Lead at INK. She's an experienced SEO professional as well as UX researcher and designer. She enjoys traveling and spending time anywhere near the sea with her family and friends.

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