Windsor·Exclusive

Windsor police admit use of controversial Clearview AI facial recognition software

Officers started using the controversial American facial recognition software as far back as October 2019.

Chief stops use of the tool after privacy commissioner launches investigation

Clearview AI can turn up search results, including a person's name and other information such as their phone number, address or occupation, based on nothing more than a photo. It is not available for public use. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The Windsor Police Service has admitted that its officers have used the controversial Clearview AI facial recognition tool. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Sgt. Steve Betteridge said that the service knows of fewer than 10 members that have used Clearview AI since October 2019 and it "is currently in the process of determining if there are any additional members who accessed the software."

Clearview AI's powerful technology can unearth items of personal information — including a person's name, phone number, address or occupation — based on nothing more than a photo.

Concerns about the software erupted after a New York Times investigation revealed the software had extracted more than three billion photos from public websites like Facebook and Instagram and used them to create a database employed by more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

When first contacted by CBC about the software on Feb. 19., WPS wouldn't say whether or not its officers used it. At that time Betteridge said that the service "does not typically disclose (by neither confirming or denying) the use of certain investigative techniques or equipment."

But on March 2, CBC emailed WPS again, citing the investigation launched by the federal privacy commissioner on Feb. 21, in concert with counterparts in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, into whether the software breaches Canadian privacy laws.

A separate investigation was launched by the federal commissioner after the RCMP announced on Feb. 27 that it used the technology.

WPS sent its statement about its use of Clearview AI on March 3.

Several privacy watchdogs are launching a joint investigation into the creators of a controversial facial recognition technology. 2:42

No arrests made; Chief halts use of facial recognition tools

In Windsor, the main users of the technology appear to be members of WPS' Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit, who were introduced to a free trial of the technology at a conference in Niagara Falls in December 2019.

"In order to determine its efficacy as an investigative tool, WPS members began testing the software as a tool that could expedite identification of young victims and their abusers, which is ICE's primary responsibility," read a statement provided by Betteridge.

"No arrests were made, nor were any suspects/victims identified as a result of these limited queries."

The investigation by the privacy commissioner has resulted in an order from Chief Pam Mizuno for officers to stop using the service.

"As a result of the Privacy Commissioner's concerns with Clearview AI and upon learning that officers were testing the technology, Chief Mizuno issued a Memorandum to all WPS officers ordering the immediate cessation of the use or testing of Clearview AI software, or any other facial recognition software," the statement from WPS continued.

"Once the Privacy Commission publishes their conclusions and provides further guidelines for law enforcement, the WPS will re-evaluate the use of facial recognition software for future investigations."

Elsewhere in Essex County, LaSalle police told CBC News that they have never used any facial recognition software.

About the Author

Jonathan Pinto is a reporter/editor at CBC Windsor, primarily assigned to Afternoon Drive, CBC Radio's regional afternoon show for southwestern Ontario. Email jonathan.pinto@cbc.ca.

With files from Catharine Tunney, CBC Toronto and The Canadian Press

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