New Zealand Accused of Racism for Failing to Recognize Asian Man’s Passport Photo

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By Victoria Craw | 12:52 pm, December 7, 2016

The New Zealand government was accused of being racist after its passport renewal software failed to recognize an Asian man’s picture.

Richard Lee is from Taiwan but grew up in New Zealand. He has since moved to Australia and he went to renew his passport on Tuesday morning online so he could go back home for Christmas.

He had never renewed his passport before, and was pretty surprised when the facial recognition software failed to accept his passport photo.

An awkward error message popped up on the screen saying: “The photo you want to upload does not meet our criteria because: Subject eyes are closed”.

Mr Lee’s eyes were clearly open.

“I tried a few different ones and no luck,” he told news.com.au.

“So I rang up the passport office and they told me there was shadowing in my eyes and also uneven lighting on the face, which makes it hard for the software to process.”

Mr Lee, also known as DJ Richy Fancy, got new passport photos taken at an Australia Post office.

“Fortunately one of them got through,” he said.

Mr Lee, 22, uploaded a picture of his rejected passport to Facebook because he found it hilarious.

“Like, I know I have small eyes so it’s nothing racist. It’s actually impressive a computer can notice that,” he said. “Like it’s obviously a programming error, nothing racist.”

But many people were far less forgiving, considering his eyes were clearly open.

“Technology is getting racist,” one person commented.

A number of others said it had also happened to them in the past.

Mr Lee said it was nice to see how many Aussies and Kiwis supported him.

“And also how many of my fellow Asians saw humor in it,” he said. “Like, there are situations where obviously you have to stand up but other times it really is a great laugh.”

The New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs told news.com.au the software was “one of the most technologically advanced in the world”.

“Up to 20 per cent of photos submitted online are rejected for a large variety of reasons,” a department spokesman said.

“The first photos in this case contained uneven lighting on the individual’s face but a later one was accepted the same day. The most common error is a subject’s eyes being closed and that was the generic error message sent in that case.”

The spokesman said the department had every confidence in the systems and did not believe they discriminated against any specific individuals.

The department issues around 25,000 online applications a month and more than half of eligible adult renewals are done digitally.

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