Facial recognition software used by Waterloo Regional Police Service in past

The Waterloo Regional Police Service says it used facial recognition technology 'on a very limited basis' in 2019, but Chief Bryan Larkin says it won't be used going forward until more is known about how it works and there's a policy in place for its use.

'We have a responsibility to look at leveraging technology to assist us,' Chief Larkin says

People walk past a poster simulating facial recognition software in Beijing, China in 2018. Waterloo regional police say they used facial recognition software 'on a very limited basis' in 2019 and had access to it through the Toronto Police Service. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The Waterloo Regional Police Service says it does not currently use facial recognition software, but it has in the past.

The news comes after Toronto police admitted some of their officers used Clearview AI — a controversial facial recognition tool that scrapes billions of online images.

WRPS Insp. Mark Crowell told CBC News the police service had used the technology through "provincial investigative networks."

"As many of our investigations are linked with other police services in southwestern Ontario, Waterloo regional police utilized facial recognition software on a very limited basis in 2019 that was made available through the Toronto Police Service as a tool to identify suspects in a criminal investigation," Crowell said.

"The use of the software did not yield any investigative leads and therefore did not contribute to any investigative results."

After a police services board meeting on Wednesday, WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin said he didn't know if the technology they used was Clearview AI or another technology.

He said he was briefed on Tuesday that the Waterloo Regional Police Service had sent images to the Toronto Police Service "but we don't have any knowledge of what software was used."

He said it's not unusual for police services to share information with each other in the course of an investigation, including photos and videos.

Toronto police stops using app

Concerns have been raised about Clearview AI after a New York Times investigation earlier this year.

Brenda McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association told CBC Toronto that Clearview AI software, named for the U.S.-based startup that developed it, has the "potential to seriously wipe out privacy."

"I would be profoundly surprised if the privacy commissioner felt that this was an appropriate technology for use in a Canadian context," McPhail said. "I find it hard to imagine that this would pass a privacy impact assessment."

The app has a database of three billion images that have been scraped from the internet, including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and can turn up search results including a person's phone number, address or occupation.

The website for the app says it only searches the open web and "does not and cannot" search private or protected information.

"Clearview results legally require follow-up investigation and confirmation," the website says, noting it complies with "all federal, state, and local laws."

Last week, Toronto police admitted to using Clearview AI and said some officers started informally using the technology in October 2019. 

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said he directed officers to stop using the technology when he became aware of its use on Feb. 5.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo has asked the Toronto Police Service about whether the images shared with officers by Waterloo regional police were run through Clearview AI. A spokesperson said they're looking into it.

Waterloo Regional Police Service Chief Bryan Larkin says he would not rule out using facial recognition software in the future, but they need to develop a policy around its use first. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

Need for use policy

In the coming days, Larkin says he'll be issuing a directive to officers that "no facial recognition technology will be used" until there's a policy in place.

Larkin didn't rule out using facial recognition software in the future.

"I think we have a responsibility to look at leveraging technology to assist us. How we go about that is the important piece," he said. "We have to use technology to advance policing. It's science and technology, all parts of policing, if you look at fingerprints, DNA, closed circuit television, technology's ever evolving."

with files from CBC's Paula Duhatschek


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