Police Board Knew About Clearview AI Trial

With the controversy about police use of Clearview AI, some might wonder if this is the actions of a few officers or if it came from the top. Now we know.

More information is surfacing about the controversial Clearview AI being used in Canada. The initial reports that surfaced last week points out that a couple of Toronto RCMP officers were engaged in a trial of the facial recognition software. Of course, one angle that wasn’t covered in the initial reports is whether or not the trial occurred because a couple of officers decided to take it for a spin or if this trial came about from the top.

It appears as though we have an answer to that question. It turns out, the police board fully knew about the trial taking place. From Ottawa Citizen:

Indeed, acting chair Sandy Smallwood said that the board was informed of the pilot at various committee meetings.

Board member Daljit Nirman, referencing this newspaper’s reporting and similar reports of the use of facial recognition by other police services, asked: “Can the chief assure the board that due diligence would be entered into prior to full implementation of this program to ensure public confidence.”

Board inquiries are received at the public meeting but the police service typically responds at a later meeting.

Police chief Peter Sloly reserved a full answer but did say, as previously reported, that the service is not currently using any facial recognition technology and had conducted a “limited pilot.”

That three-month pilot ended in March 2019.

This story has been particularly explosive in the Canadian privacy world. After news broke that Canadian RCMP was using the software, the RCMP said that they halted the program and is actively seeking comment from the Ontario Privacy commissioner and the Crown Attorney office. While we haven’t heard anything from the Crown Attorney office, we did, in fact, hear from the Ontario Privacy commissioner who was quite blunt on the subject. Brian Beamish earlier said that he doesn’t see a circumstance where using Clearview AI would be appropriate. The commissioner also urged the RCMP to halt all use of the software.

Shortly after, four additional privacy commissioners are now weighing in on the controversy. They are, of course, looking at whether using Clearview AI violates various provincial and federal privacy laws.

With this latest story surfacing, this changes the dynamic somewhat. This is because if the RCMP violated privacy laws while using the software, the liability shifts from a handful of RCMP officers to the upper management. After all, those officers who were getting their hands dirty were clearly under direction to try the software out.

Another angle that is open in all of this is whether or not there are any consequences in all of this. The answer is going to be a likely “no” given how the privacy commissioners handled the Facebook privacy scandal last year. At the time, the commissioners were tackling an app known as “This is Your Digital Life” where the app harvested peoples personal information without consent. At the time, Facebook was facing major fines from other countries over various privacy violations. So, when it came time to test the Canadian system, the commissioners sent a strongly worded letter saying that Facebook isn’t doing enough to protect Canadian privacy. Facebook simply said that they disagreed with the findings and tried to move on. In response, the commissioners had to step outside their roles as commissioners and personally file a lawsuit against Facebook in a last ditch effort to hold Facebook to any kind of semblance of accountability.

So, all of that raised a very serious question about how privacy commissioners really don’t have any tools to go after companies who violate privacy laws. In the lead up to the Canadian election, members from the Liberals, Conservative, and NDP parties all said that they have interest in strengthening the commissioners powers in the wake of this regulatory embarrassment. While the parties did eventually offer a few overtures to reform privacy laws for the better during the final debate before the election, we haven’t really seen anything substantial since then.

With the story dying down, the push seemed to have fizzled and Canadians are no better off since the Facebook scandals. Now, we are facing another major privacy controversy and we are, once again, seeing the very real danger of a privacy commissioner without having any regulatory teeth to enforce the laws. After all, like last time, the best the commissioner can do is issue a strongly worded letter before the story once again dies out.

What all of this does is send a strong signal to organizations that if you violate privacy laws and Canadian privacy, all you get is a bit of negative publicity before the story dies out. In short, there are no consequences. With lawmakers seemingly shrugging their shoulders over all of this, we’ll likely see more of this as time goes on.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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