Privacy watchdogs to probe facial-recognition technology

The federal privacy watchdog and three of his provincial counterparts will jointly investigate Canadian use of facial-recognition technology supplied by U.S. firm Clearview AI.

The investigation follows media reports that raised concerns about whether the company is collecting and using personal information without consent.

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Clearview AI’s technology allows for the collection of huge numbers of images from various sources that can help police forces and financial institutions identify people.

B.C. information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy and federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien, along with their counterparts in Alberta and Quebec, will examine whether the organization’s practices are in compliance with federal and provincial privacy legislation.

Therrien’s office said the four privacy regulators will examine whether the organization’s practices comply with Canadian privacy laws.

It said says privacy regulators in every province and territory have agreed to develop guidance for organizations — including law enforcement — on the use of biometric technology, including facial recognition.

Concerns about the software began mounting in January, after a New York Times investigation revealed that it had extracted billions of photos from public websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. The photos were used to create a database used by law enforcement agencies, including some in Canada. When users upload a photo, the app matches it to photos in its database, linking back to where they came from.

The Toronto Police Services admitted that it has used the app but said it has stopped. It initially denied using it. The Hamilton police force has said it was trying it out but has been told to stop.

Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish said his office should have been consulted before Toronto police began using Clearview AI products.

He said indiscriminate scraping of the internet to collect people’s facial images for law enforcement purposes has significant privacy implications.

“There are vital privacy issues at stake with the use of any facial recognition technology,” Beamish said in a statement on his office’s website.

“We question whether there are any circumstances where it would be acceptable to use Clearview AI.”

He said other police services using such technology should stop immediately.

British Columbia residents are no strangers to the use of facial recognition technology: It was used following the 2011 Stanley Cup riot.

Former B.C. privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham ruled in 2012 that the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia couldn’t allow police to use the provincial insurer’s facial recognition technology to identify suspected hockey Cup rioters without a court order.

— With files from the Times Colonist

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