Reports have emerged that the UK Government decided to launch passport facial recognition technology that regularly failed to recognise the features of people with very light or dark skin.
The issue with the technology became apparent during the trials of the service. However, the government pushed ahead with the launch despite being aware of the problem.
According to documents released as part of a freedom of information (FOI) request by the New Scientist, the government knew that it specifically had trouble mapping the faces of some ethnic minorities.
“User research was carried out with a wide range of ethnic groups and did identify that people with very light or very dark skin found it difficult to provide an acceptable passport photograph,” the FOI response stated. “However, the overall performance was judged sufficient to deploy.”
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Cat Hallam, a technology officer at Keele University told the publication that the tech had mistakenly thought her eyes were closed and her mouth was open due to her dark skin. “What is very disheartening about all of this is they were aware of it,” she said.
In response to the report, a government spokesman told the New Scientist: “We are determined to make the experience of uploading a digital photograph as simple as possible, and will continue working to improve this process for all of our customers.”
The government says it is conducting further research to “ensure that users from different ethnicities can follow the photo guidance and provide a photo that passes the photo check”.
The Home Office said that the photo checker can be overridden by the person submitting it. However, Hallam said users may be hesitant to do this, given the warning on the website that people could face issues if their photo does not meet the standards set out.
This is not the first time the Passport Office’s facial recognition technology has proven problematic. Last month, Joshua Bada who is also dark-skinned, had his photo application rejected because the tech mistook his lips for an open mouth, according to the Evening Standard.
When his image was rejected, Bada was told he needed to provide another image with a plain expression and a closed mouth – something he had done in the rejected photo.