Hamilton police tested controversial facial recognition technology Clearview AI

The company has built a bank of billions of photos from web sources including Instagram and Facebook and provided that bank of images for use by hundreds of law enforcement agencies.

Halton police also acknowledge accessing a free trial of the app

A mobile police facial recognition facility outside a shopping centre in London on Feb. 11, 2020. (Kevin Chan/The Associated Press)

Hamilton police have had access to a controversial facial recognition tool called Clearview AI, CBC News has learned, but have been directed to stop by Deputy Chief Frank Bergen. 

Hamilton Police Service has "been provided with log-in credentials for 'Clearview AI'" as "part of a trial period," according to a letter sent yesterday from the service's freedom of information branch.

The letter states that the service has not used the tool "for any investigative purposes."

In an interview Thursday,  Bergen told CBC News that two Hamilton officers obtained a code to access Clearview on a trial basis after attending a law enforcement convention. 

"These were a couple of officers who said, 'Hey, let's see what this software is about, and they opened it up. That type of thing," he said. 

Hamilton police deputy chief Frank Bergen said a couple of officers had access to a trial of the app, but have been directed to stop. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

"At no time has this ever moved to any operational or any investigative [use]," Bergen said. "I think this was just looking at it and seeing what the tool's capacity was."

Billions of images

Critical attention has been growing on Clearview AI since a New York Times investigation last month revealed it had built a bank of billions of photos from web sources including Instagram and Facebook and provided that bank of images for use by hundreds of law enforcement agencies.

The app allows a user to upload a photo of a person and then find public photos of that person, along with information about where the photos came from. 

The province's Information and Privacy Commissioner called on Ontario police services to immediately stop using Clearview last week after Toronto police admitted using it. 

"There are vital privacy issues at stake with the use of any facial recognition technology," said Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish in a statement.

"The indiscriminate scraping of the internet to collect images of people's faces for law enforcement purposes has significant privacy implications for all Ontarians," Beamish said. "We have made it clear in the past that my office should be consulted before this type of technology is used."

Bergen said the Hamilton officers with access to the app have been directed to stop. 

"At this particular point there's enough attention on this matter that it is cease and desist until further conversation," he said.

Beyond the Clearview trial, Bergen said that Hamilton Service doesn't use any facial recognition technology. 

'Questions about its legality'

In a further statement on Thursday, Beamish said his staff is contacting police across Ontario to ask them to refrain from using Clearview "until questions about its legality have been answered." 

"I am highly skeptical whether the information in the Clearview AI database was legally collected," he said. "While I support the use of technology by police to enhance community safety, these kinds of biometric technologies require full examination." 

Toronto police admitted last week that some officers began using the tool in October, a month after denying using it. Toronto Chief Mark Saunders directed officers to stop using Clearview when he became aware of the use on Feb. 5, according to spokesperson Meaghan Gray. 

The use of the app was not widely known within the Hamilton Police Service. 

Hamilton police initially responded on Feb. 4 to a freedom of information request filed in January by saying the service did not use Clearview AI or have any associated marketing materials. 

On Wednesday, the freedom of information branch sent a revised letter, stating that actually the service did have access to the tool. They attributed the revision to the fact that the Technological Crime Unit had not been consulted in the initial search for records. 

Bergen said the trial use of the app did not breach internal policy, but he said the service has issued a reminder to officers that they are prohibited from using computer software or apps unless approved by a unit commander or manager. 

Halton no longer using the app 

Nearby, Halton police also began a free trial of the search app in October, Const. Ryan Anderson said in an email to CBC News. 

"The free trial concluded and an internal evaluation of the application is underway," Anderson said.

He said the Halton service won't make any decisions about using the app in the future until a review by the Ontario Information and Privacy Commission and the Ministry of the Attorney General is complete. 

Niagara police originally told CBC News on Thursday the service did not have access to the app, but corrected its statement Saturday saying the service had also received free access to the app for a trial.

Spokesperson Stephanie Sabourin said Niagara officers used Clearview AI "in a limited capacity" to research "its capabilities and limitations."

"Through due diligence, once concerns surfaced over the lawfulness of its use, all trial usages were suspended immediately and is not currently in use by members of the NRPS," Sabourin said Saturday.

Secrecy around who is using the app has added to the intrigue. The Clearview website includes a reference to a "Canadian law enforcement professional" extolling the ability of the app to help solve crime. 

A former police officer told CBC's The Current that he believes the pros outweigh the cons to using a tool like Clearview. 

"We're deluding ourselves if we think that we have any privacy whatsoever," said Michael Arntfeld, a criminologist and former police officer.

"Now we can actually use this [technology] for a productive purpose, for a public safety purpose … why is the alarm being sounded now?"

Clearview AI did not respond to a request for comment. 

With files from CBC Toronto, The Current


Kelly Bennett is a freelance reporter based in Hamilton. Her writing has appeared in CBC News, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Voice of San Diego and in the National Observer for the Local Journalism Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @kellyrbennett or email kelly@kellyrbennett.com.