Passport software rejects black man's photo after mistaking his lips for an open mouth, accused of 'algorithmic bias'

Passport software rejects black man's photo after mistaking his lips for an open mouth, accused of 'algorithmic bias'
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A black man was offended when he was hoping to renew his passport online and the automated photo validator mistook his "big lips" for an open mouth.

The facial detection system is designed to notify users when the photo uploaded does not meet strict guidelines, some of which include keeping one's mouth closed and bearing a plain expression, Daily Mail reports.

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In order to apply for his passport, Joshua Bada used a high-quality photo booth image with a digital code that he made a note of and entered it on the government website.

According to the 28-year-old from west London, this was not the first time he had faced technological issues with the size of his lips. "When I saw it, I was a bit annoyed but it didn't surprise me because it's a problem that I have faced on Snapchat with the filters, where it hasn't quite recognized my mouth, obviously because of my complexion and just the way my features are," he explained. "After I posted it online, friends started getting in contact with me, saying, it's funny but it shouldn't be happening."

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Bada was forced to explain his photograph when asked by the system if he wanted to submit it anyway. "My mouth is closed, I just have big lips," he wrote in a text box.

This is not the first time a black person has faced issues with the system. In April this year, a black woman shared on Twitter how she struggled to submit her photo. Educational technologist Cat Hallam, from Staffordshire, insisted that the malfunction does not amount to racism, but is just an example of "algorithmic bias."

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Hallam became frustrated after the system told her it looked like her eyes were closed and that it could not find the outline of her face.

"The first time I tried uploading it and it didn't accept it," she told the Press Association. "So perhaps the background wasn't right. I opened my eyes wider, I closed my mouth more, I pushed my hair back and did various things, changed clothes as well—I tried an alternative camera."

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She was forced to pay extra to have a photo taken in a photo booth instead of a smartphone, like others did, for free.

"How many other individuals are probably either spending money unnecessarily or having to go through the process on numerous occasions of a system that really should be able to factor in a broad range of ethnicities?" she explained.

Hallam eventually got lucky with one of the images and proceeded to receive her renewed passport.

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The Passport Office responded to her complaint on Twitter at the time, apologizing that the photo upload service hadn't "worked as it should."

"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 Home Office said. "In the vast majority of cases where a photo does not pass our automated check, customers may override the outcome and submit the photo as part of their application. The photo checker is a customer aide that is designed to check a photograph meets the internationally agreed standards for passports."

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