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HP Probes 'Racist' Webcam Claim

YouTube video appears to show company's facial recognition technology only works with white people.

Paul McDougall

December 22, 2009

2 Min Read

Hewlett-Packard is investigating a claim that Webcams built into its PCs are incapable of tracking the facial movements of black individuals and only function properly when Caucasians or people of other lighter-skinned races are in the frame.

The probe was prompted by a YouTube video in which a black man named Desi demonstrates the problem. The camera, which is designed to follow individuals' head movements, fails to track Desi as he moves in and out of the picture.

But when Desi's white co-worker, Wanda, enters the scene the camera follows her. "As soon as my blackness enters the frame, it stopped," says Desi. "Black Desi gets in there, no face recognition anymore buddy," says Desi.

"I'm going on the record and I'm saying it, Hewlett-Packard computers are racist," adds Desi, who says he's using an HP Media Smart PC.

HP officials posted a blog Sunday indicating that the company is taking the claim seriously and investigating if technical issues are behind the problem.

"Everything we do is focused on ensuring that we provide a high-quality experience for all our customers, who are ethnically diverse and work around the world. That's why when issues surface, we take them seriously and work hard to understand the root causes," said HP social media strategist Tony "Frosty" Welch.

The official implied that HP's Web cams may, indeed, have difficult tracking black individuals' faces.

"The technology we use is built on standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose. We believe the camera might have difficulty 'seeing' contrast in conditions where there is insufficient foreground lighting," said Welch.

"We are working with our partners to learn more," said Welch.

Beyond a possible political backlash by African Americans, the glitch could also hurt HP sales in some hot emerging markets, such as India, where PC users tend to have skin tones that are darker than those of individuals of European descent.

Still, investors largely shrugged off the news, as HP shares were up 1.1%, to $52.56, in afternoon trading Tuesday.

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About the Author(s)

Paul McDougall

Editor At Large, InformationWeek

Paul McDougall is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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