It’s a common annoyance: you’re filling out a form online, and you get some error.
New Zealander Richard Lee was applying for a passport online when the system objected to the image he uploaded.
“The photo you want to upload does not meet our criteria because: subject eyes are closed,” it said.
But, Lee, who is of Asian descent, had his eyes open.
“I fell off my chair laughing,” he told CNN. “Like, I know I have small eyes, and I have no problem with it. But, the fact that a computer can notice as well, that’s just hilarious.”
— CNN (@CNN) December 8, 2016
After trying three more images, he phoned the passport office to ask for help.
“They said it was the shadow in my eyes and the uneven lighting on the face makes it hard for the software to process,” he said.
A New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs spokesman denied their system discriminated against “any specific set of individuals.”
He added that up to 20 percent of photos submitted online are rejected for a variety of reasons – most commonly shadows on the face which the software interprets as closed eyes.
“That was the generic error message sent in this case,” said Internal Affairs spokesman Steve Corbett. “We note that, in this case, another photo was submitted on the same day and the individual was issued a New Zealand passport.”
Lee – currently attending university in Melbourne, Australia – eventually gave up and went to a local post office to get some passport photos taken.
“Fortunately, one of those worked,” he said.
This wouldn’t be the first time an automated system has had problem with non-white faces.
In 2010, Taiwanese-American blogger Joz Wang was shocked when her digital camera kept asking “did someone blink?” on photos of her, while a year before black users complained of HP webcams not being able to detect their faces.
“(I’m) actually quite impressed that, in the past 80 years, we’ve gone from Turing machines to this software that can read a human face,” Lee said.
Some faces, at least.