UK – Laid Off Gambian, Others Sue Uber Over Racially Tainted Facial Recognition App
Uber is facing court action over claims its software racially discriminates against non-white drivers – and campaigners want answers from Transport for London too.
The private hire firm introduced facial recognition software in 2020 after TfL threatened not to renew its license over safety fears.
One of the men suing Uber, Pa Edrissa Manjang, has lived in the UK since moving from the Gambia in 2011. He’s in his thirties and settled here after finishing university before working in finance.
When he was made redundant, he started working for Uber Eats but had his contract terminated on May 1 after the app repeatedly failed to recognize him.
Uber told him the automated decision had been verified by a human being and out of nowhere, he was jobless.
Speaking to Metro.co.uk, Pa said: ‘I feel very bad, I feel like it shouldn’t happen.
‘Uber is a big company but it feels like nothing exists because you can’t just walk into the office, that makes it even harder.
‘I thought I would speak to them and it would all be corrected, I thought they’d get back to me in an hour and say, “It’s a mistake, you can go back to work.”‘
Asked about whether he felt racially discriminated against, he said he ‘didn’t expect to have to confront that feeling at work.
He said: ‘We know that it’s the reality of today, but equally, it doesn’t make it easier to deal when it hits you personally.’
It was a concern by evidence that some drivers were tricking the system to share accounts, meaning unlicensed drivers could pick customers up.
Uber’s answer was facial recognition software, which allows employees to upload a picture of themselves in their car at the start of a shift to prove they are who they say they are.
It submitted its proposal to use the technology the day before its original license was due to expire, and within months the company had secured its future in London.
But the system relies on tech some campaigners have labeled racist – and other big firms like Facebook and Amazon have ditched altogether – over evidence it is worse at recognizing non-white faces.
As a crowdfunded unfair-dismissal case progresses on behalf of two men who say they unfairly lost their jobs because of flaws with the software, TfL is now under pressure to explain why it is allowing a controversial technology to proliferate in the capital.
The court case is being spearheaded by the Association of App Drivers and Couriers, a trade union representing people who ply their trade in the often-fluid working conditions of the gig economy.
General secretary James Farrar has accused Transport of London of setting a ‘regulatory standard by the back door’.
Other companies are following Uber’s lead. Another private hire taxi firm, Bolt, and food delivery service Deliveroo are both looking to adopt similar methods.
Pa has two jobs now to make up for the income he lost when his Uber Eats license was revoked.
He added: ‘The whole thing shouldn’t have happened. It’s so wrong.’
Metro.co.uk asked TfL if it had considered the impact of the technology on equality or whether it would carry out an investigation now after concerns were raised in the unfair dismissal claim.
A TfL spokesperson did not respond directly but pointed out it does not stipulate operators must use facial recognition technology.
They added: ‘The safety of the traveling public is TfL’s top priority and where we are notified of cases of driver identity fraud, we take immediate action to revoke a driver’s license so that passenger safety is not compromised.