Privacy commissioners concerned over facial recognition software at Calgary malls

Alberta's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says facial recognition technology at two Calgary malls could break privacy laws, but an investigation would be required before jumping to conclusions.

Mall operator Cadillac Fairview says it is testing software across Canada that tracks age, gender of shoppers

A directory in Chinook Centre mall in south Calgary uses facial recognition technology. (Sarah Rieger/CBC)

Alberta's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says facial recognition technology at two Calgary malls could break privacy laws, but an investigation would be required before jumping to conclusions.

Last week, a visitor to Chinook Centre in south Calgary spotted a browser window that had seemingly been left open by accident on one of the mall's directories, exposing facial-recognition software that was running in the background of the digital map.

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

The owner of the mall, Cadillac Fairview, said the software was also running in Calgary's Market Mall and others across Canada, one of which is Polo Park in Winnipeg. 

No public complaints, yet

Scott Sibbald with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner said they have not yet received any complaints from the public but anticipate people will come forward based on the level of interest in the story.

"The commissioner is aware of the media reports and is considering how to proceed. Anyone with concerns that their information was collected without consent may submit a privacy complaint to our office and we will investigate."

He said an investigation would look at what kind of information is being collected, how it's used and shared, whether consent is required to gather the information and what safeguards are in place to protect the data. 

Federal commissioner

Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, says they will be in touch with the Alberta privacy commissioner about concerns over the practice. 

"Generally speaking, our office has identified facial recognition as having the potential to be the most highly invasive of the current popular biometric identifying technologies," she said by email.

"Faces have been transformed into electronic information that can be aggregated, analyzed and categorized in unprecedented ways."

Cohen said her office had not received any complaints from the public on the facial recognition technology at the malls, but they would be reaching out to Cadillac Fairview "to better understand the situation, including the company's assertion that it is not collecting personal information."

Statement from company

The company declined an interview but sent an emailed statement that said the cameras in the mall directories are used to better understand traffic flow and they "do not record or store any photo or video content."

"In June, we began testing software that tries to predict approximate age and gender to further understand the usage of our directories, and with this still no video or photo feed is recorded or stored," wrote Janine Ramparas, the director of corporate communications for Cadillac Fairview. 

"But to clarify, the software that predicts age/gender was being tested, we have not rolled it out."

​With files from Anis Heydari and Elizabeth Snaddon.

About the Author

Drew Anderson

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact securely through Signal, username Drewps.