Politics

RCMP acknowledges using facial recognition technology, but won't say where

The RCMP has for the first time acknowledged using controversial facial recognition technology that has raised privacy concerns, saying it was used in the Mounties' efforts to crack down on online child sexual abuse. 

Mounties say they rescued 2 children from sexual exploitation using Clearview AI's technology

The RCMP has acknowledged using controversial facial recognition technology that has raised privacy concerns. (Photo illustration/CBC)

The RCMP has for the first time acknowledged using controversial facial recognition technology that has raised privacy concerns, saying it was used in the Mounties' efforts to crack down on online child sexual abuse.

The RCMP acknowledged use of Clearview AI's facial recognition technology in a statement Thursday, detailing its use to rescue children from abuse.

The force said it has used the technology in 15 child exploitation investigations over the past four months, resulting in the identification and rescue of two children.

The statement also mentioned that "a few units in the RCMP" are also using it to "enhance criminal investigations," without providing detail about how widely and where. 

"While the RCMP generally does not disclose specific tools and technologies used in the course of its investigations, in the interest of transparency, we can confirm that we recently started to use and explore Clearview AI's facial recognition technology in a limited capacity," the statement said. 

"We are also aware of limited use of Clearview AI on a trial basis by a few units in the RCMP to determine its utility to enhance criminal investigations."

CBC News has requested further details of where else the force is using Clearview AI, but has yet to receive a response. 

Clearview AI's technology allows for the collection of huge numbers of images from various sources that can help police forces and financial institutions identify people. Its use has raised concerns about whether collection of this data complies with Canadian privacy laws.

While we recognize that privacy is paramount and a reasonable expectation for Canadians, this must be balanced with the ability of law enforcement to conduct investigations and protect the safety and security of Canadians, including our most vulnerable- RCMP statement

Canada doesn't have a policy on the collection of biometrics, which are physical and behavioural characteristics that can be used to identify people digitally. That means there are no minimum standards for privacy, mitigation of risk or public transparency, according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's website.

Earlier this month the federal privacy watchdog and three of its provincial counterparts agreed to jointly investigate the use of Clearview AI's technology in Canada after concerns were raised over whether the company is collecting and using personal information without consent. 

Country-wide guidelines coming

The federal watchdog also said that every privacy regulator in every province has agreed to develop guidance for organizations using facial recognition technology. The RCMP said it will be working with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada as a part of that effort.  

"While we recognize that privacy is paramount and a reasonable expectation for Canadians, this must be balanced with the ability of law enforcement to conduct investigations and protect the safety and security of Canadians, including our most vulnerable," the RCMP statement said. 

Calgary police regularly use facial recognition technology, and Toronto police have tested out their own system. Hamilton says it has tested Clearview AI's system, while the Ottawa Police Service tested an alternative technology by NeoFace Reveal last year, but says it now does not use it. 

Edmonton and Saskatoon are considering using facial recognition technology. Montreal police would not confirm whether it is being used. Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver say they do not. Other police forces contacted did not respond to inquiries.

A law enforcement tool

The federal Department of Justice said the country's Privacy Act regulates to what extent federal entities can collect, use, disclose and retain personal information. 

But that legislation does not apply to provincial or municipal police forces. 

The RCMP are subject to the act, the Department of Justice said, meaning the force "can only collect personal information that relates directly to its mandate as Canada's national police force."

In a statement issued last week, Tor Ekeland, attorney for the company, defended use of the technology. "Clearview only accesses publicly available data from the public internet," he said.

"It is strictly an after-the-fact investigative tool for law enforcement, and is used to solve crimes including murder, rape and child exploitation.  We've received the letter [from privacy officials] and look forward to a productive dialogue with Canadian officials."

With files from the CBC's David Burke and The Canadian Press

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