Company suspends use of mall directory cameras running facial recognition software

Cadillac Fairview says it is suspending the use of cameras embedded in its mall directories after using facial recognition software in some malls since June to track shoppers' ages and genders, without telling them.

Cadillac Fairview had been testing the technology since June, but didn't tell mall patrons

This mall directory at Cadillac Fairview's Chinook Centre in Calgary has a camera embedded within it, as circled in red on the left. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The Canadian real estate company behind some of the country's most popular shopping centres says it is suspending the use of cameras embedded in its mall directories while provincial and federal privacy commissioners investigate their usage.

Cadillac Fairview says they've been using facial recognition software in their mall directories since June to track shoppers' ages and genders without telling them.

The company now says they are suspending use of the cameras inside mall maps, including at Chinook Centre and Market Mall in Calgary.

The move comes after both the Alberta and federal privacy commissioners announced they were launching investigations into the use of facial recognition technology without the public's consent.

This directory in Chinook Centre mall in south Calgary was using facial recognition technology. Cadillac Fairview, which owns the mall, says they are suspending the use of the technology while the provincial and federal privacy commissioners investigate. (Sarah Rieger/CBC)

In an email to CBC News, Cadillac Fairview's director of corporate communications, Janine Ramparas, said they were suspending use of the cameras as a response to at least one of those investigations.

​"We will co-operate fully with the investigation throughout the process. We have suspended use of the cameras pending resolution of this matter," wrote Ramparas.

The company refused a request for an interview and would not clarify if all Cadillac Fairview malls across Canada were affected, or just the shopping centres in Calgary. The real estate company had previously told CBC News the software to predict age or gender was only being tested and had not been fully rolled out.

A small camera is embedded in a mall map at Cadillac Fairview's Chinook Centre in Calgary. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The facial recognition software was initially discovered when a visitor to Calgary's Chinook Centre spotted an application window seemingly left open by accident on a digital mall directory, exposing facial-recognition software running in the background. 

The visitor took a photo and posted it to the social networking site Reddit.

If there was nothing wrong with it, what's there to suspend?- Sharon Polsky , president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada

A Calgary privacy advocate welcomes the move, but said the company should have been more forthcoming about what they were doing in the first place. 

"It is very interesting to see that as soon as the commissioners announced they were investigating that Cadillac Fairview quite quickly suspended the use of this technology," said Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada.

"If there was nothing wrong with it, what's there to suspend?"

Investigations could provide guidance

The Privacy and Access Council of Canada had also asked Alberta's privacy commissioner to investigate whether Cadillac Fairview's use of facial recognition violated the law. 

Sharon Polsky is with the Privacy and Access Council of Canada. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

According to Polsky, questions remain that could be addressed by the commissioner's investigation.

"Whatever the outcome, it will be important guidance. Either they will say yes, what Cadillac Fairview is doing ... is fine, or they will make recommendations," said Polsky.

About the Author

Anis Heydari

Video Journalist

Anis Robert Heydari has worked in jobs ranging from cleaning up oil spills to fixing phone lines, but all those roads eventually led to being a jack-of-all-trades and CBC News reporter. Reach him at anis@cbc.ca.

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