RCMP denied using facial recognition technology - then said it had been using it for months

The RCMP denied using facial recognition technology as recently as January - before disclosing a few weeks later it had been using Clearview AI, a controversial app that has harvested billions of personal photos from social media, for months.

Spokesperson said Jan. 17 the force 'does not currently use facial recognition software' despite months of use

Visitors check their phones next to a screen advertising facial recognition software during the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) in Beijing April 27, 2018. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Just weeks after the RCMP denied using facial recognition technology, it acknowledged that it had been using Clearview AI's controversial software — which has harvested billions of personal photos from social media — for months.

A few weeks ago, CBC Nova Scotia reached out to the national police service's headquarters for comment for a story about Canadian police forces using facial recognition technology.

"The RCMP does not currently use facial recognition software," wrote a spokesperson from national headquarters on Jan. 17, replying to CBC's query. "However, we are aware that some municipal police services in Canada are using it."

But last week, as the debate over the ethics of Clearview AI's facial recognition technology was heating up and following reports the company's client list had been hacked, the RCMP issued a statement confirming it had been using the technology for at least the previous four months.

"The discrepancy is the result of an error on our part," said spokesperson Catherine Fortin in an email late Wednesday. 

"The information stating that the RCMP does not use facial recognition technology was not reconfirmed before being released. This error was corrected in the Feb. 27 statement, wherein the RCMP acknowledged use of Clearview AI's facial recognition technology."

On Thursday, the force said its child exploitation unit has used the technology, resulting in the rescue of two children, for about four months.

It's also acknowledged "a few units in the RCMP" are using the controversial tech to "enhance criminal investigations."

"Outside of use of the application in child sexual exploitation cases, usage has been explored on a very limited trial basis," said Fortin Wednesday, adding that RCMP headquarters is still confirming with all its divisions about what units have been using Clearview AI. 

"The RCMP is not using Clearview AI on members of the public. We are only using it in the context of ongoing criminal investigations primarily for victim identification," she said.

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 turned them into a database used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

"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," said the RCMP's recent statement.

"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."

A 'creeper's paradise,' says MP

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus has asked Attorney General David Lametti to issue a moratorium on police use of facial recognition technology until Parliament can study the issue.

"I am very concerned that the RCMP misrepresented their use of Clearview AI," he said.

"This is a stalker's, creeper's paradise and the fact that we have police services in Canada using a technology that has a massive database that may have been taken illegally, because how did they get all these photos in the first place, it compromises our police and it compromises citizen rights."

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair's office issued a statement to CBC News saying the department "look[s] forward" to seeing the report of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner on the RCMP's use of facial recognition technology.

"We are committed to protecting the rights of Canadians, including the right to privacy," said the department.

The RCMP is one of several Canadian police forces that recently have acknowledged using Clearview AI.

The Ontario Provincial Police had been silent about which facial recognition technology it was using until this past weekend, when it issued a statement saying officers from four units — child sexual exploitation, anti-human trafficking, digital forensics and cyber crime — have been using a free online trial of the Clearview AI software since December.

The OPP said it has since ordered its officers to stop using the software. An OPP spokesperson said it also reached out to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

Municipal police services in Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and Windsor, Ont. are now reporting that they have used the technology. Earlier this month, Toronto police said some of their officers have used Clearview AI — one month after denying it.

The Ottawa Police Service said it tested another system last year — from NeoFace Reveal — but no longer uses it.

WATCH: Why experts are concerned about facial-recognition technology

Why experts are concerned about facial-recognition technology

3 years ago
Duration 2:43
Several privacy watchdogs are launching a joint investigation into the creators of a controversial facial recognition technology.

"There may be reasons that police use this in a very good way, but that should be under judicial oversight and we need to know what the ground rules are," said Angus, who successfully pushed for a study by the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics of the technology's effects on civil society and privacy rights.

"The power of machine-driven artificial intelligence to identify people or misidentify them, when you're walking down the street, when you're walking into a store ... when they're trolling the pictures you put up on Facebook of your family barbecue — this cuts to the very heart of who we are as individuals, our right to privacy, our right to be in public."

The federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner opened an investigation into whether the Mounties' use of facial recognition software violates federal privacy law late last week. That probe is happening in tandem with another probe by the OPC and its provincial counterparts looking into Clearview's practices.

The RCMP said it will work with federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien on guidelines for the use of facial-recognition technology under Canadian law.

With files from the CBC's David Burke