Uber’s Facial Recognition System Is Causing Problems for Transgender Drivers
By Mila Madison
The feature in question is the company’s facial recognition system called Real-Time ID Check that requires drivers to take periodic selfies in order to verify their identity. If the current photo doesn’t show as a match to previous photos on file, the driver is either temporarily or permanently suspended from using the app.
This poses a problem for transgender drivers who are currently transitioning and taking hormones. Often, the physical changes caused by hormone replacement therapy end up getting the driver flagged as not recognized.
In a report by CNBC, Janey Webb began transitioning around the time she started working for Uber in October 2017. She made sure she consistently uploaded new photos into the Uber system throughout her transition so that both Uber and any potential passengers would have an up to date record of what she looked like in order to avoid any problems. In the beginning of July 2018, her account was suspended because her most recent photo did not match the one on her driver’s license. Webb was forced to drive two hours to the nearest in-person support center in order to resolve the problem; however Uber could not guarantee that the issue wouldn’t occur again.
"A trans person can't be expected to update their license every three months or so just to avoid being deactivated," Webb said.
Another transgender driver estimated that she was prompted to pull over and verify her identity close to 100 times in the past year and a half. Though Uber tells their drivers that the process is random, ID checks are also triggered by fraud reports and signals as well.
The overall problem appears to be with the current state of facial recognition technology itself. The technology not only often fails with transgender people, but with people of color as well. Police in Florida and Oregon have recently trialed a system called Rekognition from Amazon. In an interview with TMW, Brian Brackeen, the CEO of facial recognition AI company Kairos, said “I see a world where Amazon Rekognition could send more innocent African Americans to jail.” A study conducted by the ACLU revealed a disproportionate number of women and people of color were getting misidentified compared to white men when using Rekognition.
Apparently the facial recognition software of today is only able to properly serve cisgender white men. Brakeen has been outspoken regarding the prejudices caused by the technology. “Imagine a world where we already have problems in society, and now we exacerbate those prejudices with underperforming technology,” Brackeen said. “Even a tiny increase in erroneous match rates of face recognition algorithms, when applied at scale, could mean the difference between literally hundreds-of-thousands to millions of mis-identified individuals.”
In its current state, the Uber app has many problems when it comes to transgender people. Ubers policy forces drivers to use their deadname on the app if they haven’t legally changed it, which then forces the drivers to have to constantly out themselves to passengers. Uber also announced that as of April, a new feature was rolled out that would allow drivers and passengers to specify their pronouns. It is a step in the right direction; however it has not yet been made available to drivers and riders.
Watch the video from CNBC: