Politics

RCMP says it will limit its use of facial recognition tech — but won't stop using it entirely

The RCMP says it will now only use Clearview AI “in very limited and specific circumstances" as concerns mount about the police force’s use of the controversial facial recognition technology.

Mounties first denied using facial recognition technology, then said they had been using it for months

The RCMP says it's reviewing its use of facial recognition technology, particularly Clearview AI. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

The RCMP says it will now use Clearview AI only "in very limited and specific circumstances" as concerns grow about the police force's use of the controversial facial recognition technology.

"Our review of the continued use of this technology, and particularly Clearview AI, is ongoing," said RCMP spokesperson Catherine Fortin in an email to CBC News today.

"In the interim, given the sensitivities surrounding facial recognition technology, we will only be using it in very limited and specific circumstances. The RCMP will only use facial recognition technology, including Clearview AI, in exigent circumstances for victim identification in child sexual exploitation investigations, or in circumstances where threat to life or grievous bodily harm may be imminent."

Concerns about the software intensified earlier this year after a New York Times investigation revealed that the software had extracted more than three billion photos from public websites like Facebook and Instagram, turning them into a database used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

Following reports the company's client list had been hacked, the Mounties issued a statement at the end of last month confirming it had been using the technology for at least the previous four months — weeks after denying it. 

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

At the time, it also acknowledged "a few units in the RCMP" are using the controversial tech to "enhance criminal investigations."

NDP MP Charlie Angus speaks about facial recognition technology during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Monday, March 9, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On Monday, a spokesperson said six trial licences were used by RCMP units that "focus on criminal investigations" — which could refer to almost any section of the RCMP.

"These trial licences were used to assess its potential for use in a criminal investigation, or to help advance a criminal investigation," said Fortin in an email to CBC News.

NDP pushes for temporary ban 

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.

NDP MP Charlie Angus repeated his call on Monday for the Liberal government to issue a moratorium on the commercial, private and public sector use of Clearview AI in public spaces until the privacy commissioner finishes his investigation into the company.

During a news conference Monday, Angus said the technology is open to abuse.

"The potential for this technology to track our personal lives and our movements is positively dystopian and we deserve basic protections from our government," he said.

"In the U.S., many municipalities are banning the use of facial recognition software like this. The Liberal government should follow suit, at least until we know for a fact that no laws in Canada have been breached."

The federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner opened an investigation into whether the Mounties' use of facial recognition software violates federal privacy law just over a week ago. That's happening as the House of Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee begins its own probe into the ramifications of facial recognition technology.

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

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair's office has said his department "look[s] forward" to seeing Therrien's report.

"We are committed to protecting the rights of Canadians, including the right to privacy," said a ministry spokesperson in a statement last week.

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