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Lawrie McFarlane: Canada should tell privacy-invading U.S. firm to clear out

This mass-surveillance company claims to have collected more than three billion images from such social-media sites as ­YouTube, Facebook and numerous others. That makes its database the largest ever assembled.
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B.C. privacy commissioner Michael ­McEvoy issued a formal ban ­forbidding Clearview AI from ­operating in the ­province, which prompted ­Clearview to sue McEvoy, writes ­Lawrie McFarlane. The company claims to have collected more than three billion images from social-media sites. ADRIAN WYLD, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Just when you thought online snoopery couldn’t get any more intrusive, it has.

An American outfit called Clearview AI (a name to conjure with) is scanning the internet and grabbing every human face it can find.

This mass-surveillance company claims to have collected more than three billion images from such social-media sites as ­YouTube, Facebook and numerous others. That makes its database the largest ever assembled.

If you want a sense of just how scary these folks are, do a Google search for Clearview AI, and watch their introductory video. It shows a dimly lit figure walking in front of the camera and peering at what seems to be a wall covered with newspaper cutouts and mugshots. The whole shadowy performance is creepy to the nth degree.

Clearview claims to be a force multiplier for police agencies everywhere. It gives the example of a pedophile who was identified using its image-enhancing tool.

The company boasts 600 law-enforcement agencies among its active clients.

Of course, the capacity for abuse is ­self-evident. According to Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University: “The weaponization possibilities of this are endless. Imagine a rogue law-enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a ­foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”

In effect, if your image appears anywhere on a social-media site, you are now in a police lineup somewhere.

Following a joint investigation by privacy officers in B.C., Alberta and Quebec, the company was ordered to cease collecting images of residents in those provinces, to delete any such images already collected, and to stop offering facial-recognition ­services to Canadian clients.

After the company refused, B.C.’s privacy commissioner, Michael McEvoy, issued a formal ban forbidding the firm from ­operating in our province.

That led Clearview to sue McEvoy in B.C. Supreme Court.

Laughably, while the firm says Canada lacks jurisdiction since it’s an American-based corporation, Clearview also claims its charter rights to freedom of expression have been infringed.

And which country’s charter rights would those be? Canada’s, a country whose ­jurisdiction Clearview refuses to acknowledge. Put this down to sheer nerve.

However, the firm also argues that the order to stop collecting and storing Canadian images is, in practice, impossible to comply with. This goes beyond nerve to outright falsehood.

As McEvoy points out in his order, the company has already complied with such a requirement.

After the state of Illinois told Clearview to clear out, the firm constructed a “geofence” around Illinois, and agreed not to collect images from servers that display Illinois IP addresses, or websites with URLs containing keywords such as “Chicago” or “Illinois.”

In short, the company’s rebuff to McEvoy notwithstanding, Clearview absolutely can stop collecting B.C. data, and indeed data from any Canadian jurisdiction.

I’m not a lawyer, but I would be stunned if McEvoy’s order doesn’t stand up in court. A clearer case of injurious, unconstrained and privacy-destroying intrusions into the ­confidential lives of individuals would be hard to imagine.

The rest of Canada should join McEvoy in showing these lizards the door.