Uber’s ‘racist’ app a slap in face for black driver
Driver claims he was booted off the app after facial recognition software failed to recognise him
Uber has been accused of discrimination by a US black driver who said he was barred from the app because the facial recognition software did not recognise him.
In a case filed under civil rights law, William Fambrough claimed he had been forced to lighten the images used to verify his identity when beginning a drive, which had led the company to deactivate his account.
Uber verifies a driver’s identity by asking for a selfie taken on their phone, to be sure they are the same person they have background-checked and cleared to drive. The real-time ID check randomly selects drivers to be verified, and asks them to take a selfie, which is checked using Microsoft’s Face API software. In Fambrough’s complaint, filed with a court in Missouri, the Kansas City Uber driver states that he works “late nights” for Uber and the software struggled to identify him in “pitch darkness”, forcing him to artificially lighten the photographs of himself.
He says Uber told him that his photos were “fraudulent” and terminated his account earlier this month. In documents filed with the court and seen by this publication, Fambrough also says the company’s action has left him with just $0.80 to his name and caused his migraines to escalate.
“Uber has not presented any evidence that anyone else other than me has used my account. My skin colour is the only answer for my deactivation and this suit is my only recourse for Uber’s adverse action,” the complaint says.Fambrough said he uses an older phone with a low-pixel camera to drive for Uber, which may have contributed to the software’s inability to recognise him. He is claiming $227,000 (R3.2m) in damages and is asking for his driver account to be reinstated.Not a good lookCynthia Lee, a lecturer in computer science at Stanford University, and an advocate for more inclusive tech, said: “It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who is familiar with face recognition software that a black man would encounter an issue like this, and it’s unfortunate that Uber apparently did not design their procedures to account for this entirely foreseeable situation.”The real-time ID check, a safety feature introduced in September 2016, is designed to ensure passengers are not put at risk by getting into cars driven by people who have not been cleared to drive. Microsoft’s Face API is among facial recognition systems to have been criticised for having a much higher failure rate with black people owing to a lack of images of non-white people being used to train software.
A 2018 study found that the Microsoft Face API had an error rate of only 0.7% for light-skinned faces, but an error rate of 12.9% for dark-skinned faces, when predicting a person’s sex. In June of that year the company claimed to have made “significant improvements”, reducing the error rates for people with darker skin by up to 20 times.
Uber’s Face ID system previously came under fire after transgender drivers had their accounts suspended when their pictures did not match those on file.
Uber declined to comment on the pending litigation.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)