Police agencies in Canada are grappling with the use of facial-recognition technology, a tool that law enforcement officials say could aid in identifying criminals but that privacy advocates argue raises concerns. Two Canadian police services have said they used the controversial technology, one calling for a review by Ontario's privacy commissioner, while a third expressed plans to move forward with implementation.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is now prepared to step in and tackle the concerns, announcing Friday that privacy commissioners from Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta will join the OPC in a joint investigation of Clearview AI, an app reportedly being used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies with a database of more than 3 billion images scraped from the internet, including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Clearview AI has been in the news following a New York Times investigation.
"The investigation was initiated in the wake of numerous media reports that have raised questions and concerns about whether the company is collecting and using personal information without consent," OPC wrote. "Privacy regulators in every province and territory have also agreed to work together to develop guidance for organizations – including law enforcement – on the use of biometric technology, including facial recognition."
The investigation will focus on whether Clearview AI's work violates various provisions of Canadian privacy legislation. The OPC will examine whether the technology violates the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, while provincial commissioners will investigate potential compliance issues related to their own laws on personal information.
Toronto police initially denied using Clearview AI, but a spokesperson said some officers have been “informally testing” the technology since Oct. 2019, CBC News reports. When Police Chief Mark Saunders became aware of the practice on Feb. 5, he ordered officers to stop “until a fulsome review of the product is completed.” The agency has now asked the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario and Crown Attorneys’ Offices to conduct an external review.
Read more about Clearview AI in “Will NYT’s facial-recognition story sway privacy debate?” by IAPP Editorial Director Jed Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US
Toronto police also shared facial-recognition software with a second agency, the Waterloo Regional Police Service, though it’s unknown if it was Clearview AI, CBC News reported. “As many of our investigations are linked with other police services in southwestern Ontario, Waterloo regional police utilized facial recognition software on a very limited basis in 2019 that was made available through the Toronto Police Service as a tool to identify suspects in a criminal investigation,” said Inspector Mark Crowell. WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin directed officers that “no facial recognition technology will be used” until a policy is implemented.
Though the Edmonton Police Service is not yet using facial recognition, Superintendent of the Informatics Division Warren Drichel said it does plan to, according to CTV News. It’s not clear what software it will use, but Driechel said it would compare images obtained during criminal investigations with a database of official records. The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta has requested the EPS conduct a privacy impact assessment.
While police say facial recognition assists in identifying subjects involved in criminal cases, it comes with serious concerns surrounding, accuracy, discrimination and more. Canadian Civil Liberties Association Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project Director Brenda McPhail said the technology has the “potential to seriously wipe out privacy,” as CBC News reported. McPhail, who leads the association’s privacy, technology and surveillance project, said she would be “profoundly surprised” if the privacy commissioner finds it “an appropriate technology.”
“We give our police officers special powers in our society that we believe they need to keep us safe. But there is a trust relationship that has to be there, it’s the foundation of those powers,” McPhail said.
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