Uber to face UK tribunal over 'racially discriminatory' facial recognition systems

A UK union said members were wrongly dismissed when the system failed to work.

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Drivers in the UK are taking legal action against Uber over its real-time biometric identification checks, TechCrunch has reported. A union representing the drivers claims that some members were wrongly suspended when they were misidentified, and lost their licenses as a result. "[The] facial recognition systems... are inherently faulty and generate particularly poor accuracy results when used with people of color," the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) wrote in a blog post.

Backed by two worker's rights groups, the union is crowdfunding the legal action, taken on behalf of former UberEats courier Pa Edrissa Manjang and former Uber driver Imran Javaid Raja. It said they were "unfairly dismissed after the company's facial recognition system failed to identify them."

"Workers are prompted to provide a real-time selfie and face dismissal if the system fails to match the selfie with a stored reference photo," the ADCU wrote. "In turn, private hire drivers who have been dismissed also faced automatic revocation of their private hire driver and vehicle licenses by Transport for London."

Earlier in 2021, Uber was forced to reclassify UK drivers as workers, offering benefits like pension pay and holiday time. That came about because of a lawsuit filed on behalf of two Uber drivers, James Farrer and Yaseen Aslam, who eventually helped form the ADCU in February 2020.

Transport for London (TfL) pulled Uber's license in 2019 over "a pattern of failures." One particular sore point was that it allowed uninsured and suspended drivers to operate in the city, due to a loophole allowing them to upload their photos to another driver's account. To meet the regulator's requirements, Uber introduced random driver checks via a facial recognition system that uses Microsoft's FACE API technology, according to the ADCU. (Uber won back its license in September of 2020.)

The union noted that Microsoft withdrew sales of its facial recognition software to US police departments, and that the use of similar software has been discontinued or banned by Amazon, IBM, Axon and other companies. It also cited stats showing that facial recognition programs are far less accurate for people of color.

However, Uber pushed back, saying that it doesn't depend solely on AI. "Our Real-Time ID Check is designed to protect the safety and security of everyone who uses the Uber app by helping ensure the correct driver is behind the wheel," Uber responded in a statement to TechCrunch. "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." It added that no Uber or Uber Eats accounts is suspended solely as a result of AI.

However, Farrer said that the union has won at least 10 appeals in court against drivers dismissed by TfL that cite Uber's ID checks. "With Imran [Javaid Raja], Uber and TfL have already admitted they got it wrong. But he was out of work for three months. No apology. No compensation,”