Canadian Privacy Commissioner Urges RCMP to Halt Facial Recognition Trials

As facial recognition software debates continue to heat up, a privacy commission weighed in asking RCMP to halt the trials over privacy concerns.

The debate over facial recognition software is heating up in Canada. Earlier this week, revelations surfaced that members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were testing out the Clearview AI in Canada. This happened as the software maker faced lawsuits in the US over the US police forces using the software themselves.

Adding an interesting dynamic to the international debate is how European officials weighed in on the controversial software. One official said that the use of such software is illegal under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In that regard, it minimized the debate in the continent to a certain degree. In addition to that, it also adds further questions about the use of such software. If a whole continent declares the use of such software illegal, should other jurisdictions follow suit given the privacy implications?

Whether or not comments made in Europe had any bearing on what is now happening remains unclear. Still, Freezenet is aware of reports that suggest that a Canadian privacy commissioner is urging the RCMP to halt the use of the facial recognition software. From Inside Halton:

In a statement, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish “urged” organizations to contact the office “if they are considering using new technologies that could pose a potential privacy risk to citizens.”

After the media informed Beamish’s office that other Ontario police services had tested the tool, Beamish said Feb. 14 that they should “stop this practice immediately and contact my office.”

“I’ve also asked my staff to contact those we’ve become aware of through the media to discuss the legality and privacy implications of their use of this technology,” he said.

Beamish’s office was unaware Toronto police were using Clearview AI technology until contacted by them last week. Noting there are “vital privacy issues at stake with the use of any facial recognition technology,” Beamish said “we are relieved that its use has been halted.”

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

So, clearly the language is unambiguous here. For one, the commissioner is saying that the so-called “free trial” be halted immediately. For another, there are questions over whether the use of such software is legal under any circumstances.

Part of what makes this so interesting is the fact that when the revelations first came up, RCMP suggested that they would stop the practice pending input from crown legal counsel and the privacy commissioners. Now, we are hearing from at least one commissioner who is struggling to think of a circumstance where the use of such software is even legal.

What we haven’t heard from are crown lawyers making recommendations at this stage. It would be surprising if we do hear from that angle. Still, when you have one half of the people you are asking giving a clear “no”, that, at least politically, makes it much more difficult to really move forward with the use of facial recognition software in the first place.

What will be interesting to see in this debate is how different sides move forward. Will the RCMP simply try and find another angle to make use of the software or do they back off and say, “OK, clearly the laws as they stand now do not permit us to use this software, let’s move forward with other projects and shelve these plans”?

While it is early days, some of this is starting to sound like echo’s of the Lawful Access debates in the 2000’s. At the time, RCMP police chiefs were pushing hard to have what is known as “Lawful Access” laws be put in place. Essentially, those are the Canadian equivalent to America’s infamous Warrentless Wiretapping laws. The police, at the time, were arguing that having to go through the courts to get a wiretap is overly cumbersome. As such, they were asking that they no longer have to deal with this pesky court oversight thing to wiretap anyone they want.

In response, privacy commissioner’s were up in arms over these laws. They found themselves urging the Canadian government to not pursue these laws because the risk to Canadian privacy is substantial. One commissioner argued that when a democracy begins to fail, the first right to disappear is the right to privacy.

Ultimately, Lawful Access failed largely because elections were called and multiple attempts to pass those laws died on the order paper. As each subsequent attempt to pass those laws came and went, the political will to push through those laws gradually diminished until the efforts were effectively shelved.

So, the potential echo’s between then and now are, so far, a bit fuzzy. You already have at least one privacy commissioner speaking out against this initiative. There is a clear risk to Canadian privacy. The way in which this can escalate can very easily sound like a repeat of the Lawful Access debates. One example is that there could be an effort to get the federal government involved in legalizing the practice for all we know.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how these events unfold. We could very well have the early stages of a case of history repeating itself on our hands.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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