Legal action over alleged Uber facial verification bias

It took months to get his licence back: “It affected my wife, my son, my daughters, it affected my whole family.”

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Two unions are taking legal action against Uber, alleging that software used to verify drivers’ identity is racially biased, and the firm has unfairly dismissed drivers.

The unions claim the Microsoft facial verification system used is worse at identifying people with darker skin.

Uber says it protects passengers by ensuring the right person is driving, and there is “robust human review”.

Microsoft declined to comment on an ongoing legal case.

This week the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) backed an employment tribunal claim for indirect racial discrimination on behalf of one of its members whose account, it says, was terminated following a facial verification error.

The IWGB is asking Uber to scrap the use of the technology.

It follows a decision by the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) earlier this year, to bring two employment tribunal cases against Uber.

The two drivers are supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission., which told the BBC: “A person’s race should not be a barrier to using technology in any part of their life, including for their livelihood.

“We are supporting the drivers in their cases against Uber as part of our work to challenge race discrimination, including the use of potentially discriminatory AI in automated decision making.”

Passenger Safety

Some studies have shown that face recognition systems have higher error rates for darker-skinned people.

Uber calls the system it uses to verify drivers’ identity “Real-Time ID Check”.

The system is designed to stop drivers sharing accounts, in part because drivers must go through criminal record checks to get a private hire licence.

Uber told the BBC it protected the “safety and security of everyone who uses the Uber app by helping ensure the correct driver is behind the wheel”.

“The system includes robust human review to make sure that this algorithm is not making decisions about someone’s livelihood in a vacuum, without oversight”, the firm said.

It has said it is committed to fighting racism and championing equality.

Before starting work, a driver submits a selfie to Uber which it then checks for a match against the account photo in its records.

Uber says drivers can choose whether their selfie is checked by Microsoft software, or by humans.

If the photo does not match automatically, then there is a human review, it says.

If the human review agrees there is not a match, the driver is “waitlisted” for 24 hours.

The next time a driver logs on, a further human review is carried out. If there is still no match then the driver’s account is deactivated. Drivers may appeal against the decision.

Failure rates

In June the ADCU launched legal action over what it alleges was the unfair dismissal of a driver and an Uber Eats courier after the company’s facial recognition system failed to identify them.

James Farrar, the union’s General Secretary, said that Uber had introduced a flawed facial recognition technology which generates “unacceptable failure rates when used against a workforce mainly composed of people of colour”.

According to Transport for London, 94% of licensed private hire drivers are black, Asian and minority ethnic.

Microsoft declined to comment, citing pending legal action, but in a letter to the ADCU in April, the company wrote that it was “consistently testing and updating our Face API with particular attention to fairness and accuracy across demographic groups”.

“We have also developed new practices, research methods, and tools to enable our customers to assess and mitigate unfairness in AI systems,” it said.

Uber stresses that if the algorithm finds a mismatch, the decision is subject to human review.

But Pa Edrissa Manjang, one of the two people supported by the ADCU to bring an action against Uber, found the fact that humans had not spotted that his selfies matched “mindboggling”, and questioned their professionalism.

“It’s hard to get that wrong”, he said, “but in my case they have got that wrong”.

The other person supported by the union to bring a tribunal case, Imran Javaid Raja, successfully contested Uber’s decision, but lost his private hire licence following his dismissal.

It took months to get his licence back: “It affected my wife, my son, my daughters, it affected my whole family.” he said.