The Quiet Growth of Race-Detection Software Sparks Concerns Over Bias
When Revlon Inc. wanted to know what lipstick women of different races and in different countries were wearing, the cosmetics giant didn’t need to send out a survey. It hired Miami-based Kairos Inc., which used a facial-analysis algorithm to scan Instagram photos.
Back then, in 2015, the ability to scan a person’s face and identify his or her race was still in its infancy. Today, more than a dozen companies offer some form of race or ethnicity detection, according to a review of websites, marketing literature and interviews.
In the last few years, companies have started using such race-detection software to understand how certain customers use their products, who looks at their ads, or what people of different racial groups like. Others use the tool to seek different racial features in stock photography collections, typically for ads, or in security, to help narrow down the search for someone in a database. In China, where face tracking is widespread, surveillance cameras have been equipped with race-scanning software to track ethnic minorities.
The field is still developing, and it is an open question how companies, governments and individuals will take advantage of such technology in the future. Use of the software is fraught, as researchers and companies have begun to recognize its potential to drive discrimination, posing challenges to widespread adoption.
A spokeswoman for Revlon says it was unable to comment because the Instagram scanning happened several years ago. Kairos didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.