Homeless shelter plans to ID clients with facial recognition, but it's a fix that comes with privacy risks

Agencies have struggled with how to identify clients that don't have official ID, and one Calgary shelter thinks it might have a high-tech solution — facial recognition.

Calgary Drop-In Centre is testing technology, but before it rolls out they have to address issue of consent

The Calgary Drop-In Centre is looking to implement facial recognition technology to identify clients and provide details on their files. (Sierra Systems)

When Phil Burke held his first piece of official, government-issued ID after 25 years in and out of homelessness, he called it one of his life's greatest achievements.

"It was a first-time thing for me and I was 40-something years old. It was awesome. It was just a long progression of things I should have done," he said.

A driver's licence or a health card might seem like a small thing, but to a person experiencing homelessness it represents the key to unlocking a cell phone, a job and housing.

Agencies have struggled with how to identify clients that don't have official ID, and one Calgary shelter thinks it might have a high-tech solution — facial recognition — but it's a fix that comes with serious privacy risks for an already marginalized population, one privacy expert said.

That's the dream, putting the client in the position of being in charge of where their information is shared.- Helen  Wetherley  Knight, director of IT at the Calgary Drop-In Centre

The Calgary Drop-In Centre currently uses a form of biometric technology to identify clients that visit the shelter, but it has its own drawbacks.

Each person that enters the building is fingerprinted, but that method is not accurate if a person's fingers have been burned by the cold or otherwise damaged, and doesn't consider prior negative associations some people have with being fingerprinted.

Fingerprinting is 'invasive'

"Being fingerprinted is invasive and can cause stress for some clients, for example clients who have been previously incarcerated or who have mental illness resulting in paranoia, the process can be unnecessarily triggering for people checking into the building," said Helen Wetherley Knight, director of IT at the Calgary Drop-In Centre.

"When people don't have government ID, accessing social services can be very difficult."

Knight said clients are never turned away due to lack of ID, but it can cause problems. 

"If a client exhibits threatening or violent behaviour we're obligated to restrict their entry into the building in order to protect our clients, volunteers and staff, and if we can't identify each person with government ID, it would be possible for a client to use a fake name and re-enter the building."

So, instead the Drop-In Centre is testing facial recognition technology for a non-invasive ID solution. Each client's photos are captured with a secure webcam, encrypted, and then linked to a system where staff can access the client's profile.

Calgary Drop-In Centre is the first emergency shelter using the technology in Calgary, and Knight said she isn't aware of other shelters in Canada using it, although biometrics have been used by human-services agencies across the globe. 

In Edmonton, Four Directions Financial credit union, within Boyle Street Community Services, retinally scans customers so people living in poverty can open bank accounts even if they don't have ID. And globally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees​ (UNHCR) uses biometrics to identify and house refugees in dozens of countries.

Technology was finalist for community award

The program the Drop-In Centre is testing, which is being implemented by Vancouver-based IT company Sierra Systems, uses Microsoft's Facial Recognition API. The project was a finalist for a Microsoft IMPACT award for citizenship and community in July.

Client data would be stored securely in Microsoft's cloud in data warehouses in Quebec.

Knight said if the Drop-In Centre switches over to facial recognition, it could change the game for organizations that help people who are chronically homeless.

Eventually, they'd like to implement blockchain technology, to give clients control over which agencies access their personal information, and allow multiple agencies to work in conjunction to house clients.

"That's the dream, putting the client in the position of being in charge of where their information is shared, giving them the ability to be identified at the shelter without the government ID they've never had or have lost. It's important to them. This is a tool to support the clients," she said. 

But, there's no timeline to roll out the technology, as some serious kinks still need to be worked out.

How do you assess consent?

One of the big ones is the issue of informed consent, Knight said.

"Since the drop-in is not a dry shelter, we must be mindful of the fact that some of our clients check into the building while intoxicated. [Staff] have significant challenges assessing consent," Knight said.

Sharon Polsky, vice-president of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association, said there is case law where judges have determined that inebriated people cannot give consent and the technology raises "serious concerns."

"There's a whole range of issues why people find themselves in these unfortunate situations … they're already at a disadvantage. There's also a power imbalance," she said. "If you want to enter this facility, these are our conditions. You will give up whatever we tell you to give up or you don't get in."

Non-profits not held to same privacy rules

And, any information that's collected won't be held to the same rules as if it were collected by a private company.

 Alberta's Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) only applies to non-profit organizations if they collect personal information for commercial purposes.

"Anything that's not of a commercial nature is free game," said Polsky. "They can collect all the information they want, they can share it with whomever they wish, including law enforcement, it gives them great licence.

Sharon Polsky, vice-president of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association, is concerned that non-profits aren't covered under PIPA legislation unless personal information is collected in relation to commercial activity. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"And what happens when a person gets their life together and they no longer need the services of the shelter. What happens to their information? Since it's not covered under the legislation, will that information harm them? It likely could, further disabling them from regaining their lives."

The Drop-In Centre said all client information collected is stored with a high degree of security. 

It's worth noting that the centre has been through some turmoil in the past year, from staff turnover to a provincial investigation initiated after allegations of workplace harassment. 

Polsky said another issue is that the more information an organization collects, the greater the risk, as that information has to be protected.

"So, now there's going to be a database of intimate personal information about marginalized and perhaps not the most computer-savvy people. What happens when that database is breached?" she asked.

"You've got a population that has no right to privacy if a facility chooses to demand their information. Why should they have any less right to privacy than anyone else?"

It's almost 'Big Brother-ish': homeless advocate

Burke said despite his long struggle to obtain government ID, he'd rather have an agency support him as he goes through that long process than have his face stored in a database.

"It's almost as if somebody is saying, 'You don't know how to run your life, but I do.' That's how I see that," he said. "It's almost like Big Brother-ish … receiving a number and losing your identity."

Burke is now an advocate for other people experiencing homelessness with the Calgary Homeless Foundation's Client Action Committee, but he was a client at the Drop-In Centre about a decade ago.

He said he's heard there has been a shift at the Drop-In Centre over the past 10 years, toward helping the individual access housing, rather than simply sheltering them for the night.

But, he still worries that implementing a technology like this would just be another way to alienate people experiencing homelessness from the rest of the population.

"To a person that wasn't homeless, he wouldn't ever expect to be treated like that," he said. 

The facial recognition technology has already gone through one round of testing — 41 clients, volunteers and staff "eagerly participated" Knight said — but no further testing is planned as it is undergoing a feasibility study.

"It's really important that it's feasible, it's respectful, and it makes sense for clients and staff," she said.


Sarah Rieger


Sarah Rieger joined CBC Calgary as an online journalist in 2017. You can reach her by email at