British Columbia

5 police officers in B.C. used facial recognition software deemed illegal, privacy commissioner says

Canadian privacy commissioners have called for stronger federal and provincial privacy laws after they found American technology firm Clearview AI violated privacy laws by collecting photos of Canadians without their knowledge or consent.

Vancouver Police Department confirms detective in Integrated Child Exploitation Unit used software once

New York-based startup Clearview AI has drawn attention following investigative reports about its practice of harvesting billions of photos from social media and other services to identify people. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

British Columbia's privacy commissioner has confirmed that five police officers and one civilian in the province have used the Clearview AI facial recognition software, despite concerns about privacy violations. 

"It wasn't surprising that officers individually might want to take advantage of technologies they might think to be helpful," said B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy.

"But what's important is that they need to think about issues such as whether those technologies violate our privacy laws."

The privacy commissioner wouldn't confirm which police force used the software, and would only say that the civilian was a single employee at a private company. 

In these cases, the software's use had not been authorized, McEvoy emphasized, and was discontinued.

Vancouver police confirms use

Last week, four Canadian privacy commissioners called on governments to beef up federal and provincial privacy laws after they found Clearview AI violated Canadian privacy laws by collecting photos of Canadians — often from social media — without their knowledge or consent.

Radio-Canada followed up on the report's findings to determine how many of the 48 accounts created for law enforcement agencies and other organizations across Canada were in B.C.

The commissioner said five individual police officers in the province used the software, but wouldn't say which police force they were working for. 

Contacted by Radio-Canada, the Vancouver Police Department confirmed that one of its detectives in the Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) unit used the software once to help identify a child victim. 

Clearview AI's software collects images from the internet and allows users to search for matches. (Ascannio/Shutterstock )

VPD spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said the unit was provided with a free trial membership. Addison said the software didn't find any matches, and it was never used again.

"The main priority of VPD's ICE unit is to identify and locate child victims of sexual abuse in order to rescue them from that abuse," Addison said. 

Radio-Canada also contacted the Victoria Police Department, but it said none of its officers had used it. 

Service actively marketed to police

The commissioners' report released last week found that Clearview AI's technology created a significant risk to individuals by allowing law enforcement and companies to match photos against its database of more than three billion images, including Canadians and children.

The investigation found the American technology firm collected images in Canada and actively marketed its services to Canadian police forces.

According to the report, a number of Canadian law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP, Toronto and Calgary police, had been using the advanced technology to help identify perpetrators and victims of crimes.

Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien told reporters last week the software "is mass surveillance and it is illegal."

McEvoy said he was struck by the "vast amount" of information that was collected without consent. He said the case also highlights the need to strengthen privacy laws in Canada.

Fines needed, says commissioner

McEvoy said B.C.'s Personal Information Protection Act could be strengthened if it included fines for companies and individuals that violate the law. 

"It's something that must be put into the new legislation in order to strengthen it so that citizens' personal information is protected," he said, adding that he has been working with a legislative committee on the issue. 

The commissioners called for Clearview AI to stop offering its technology in Canada, stop collecting images of Canadians and to delete the photos of Canadians it had already collected in its database.

In July, company CEO Hoan Ton-That said Clearview AI had ceased operations in Canada. He said Canadians would be able to opt out of Clearview AI's search results.

"We are proud of our record in assisting Canadian law enforcement to solve some of the most heinous crimes, including crimes against children," Ton-That said in a statement at the time.

"We will continue to co-operate with the [Office of the Privacy Commissioner] on other related issues."

With files from Genevieve Lasalle and Elizabeth Thompson