Alberta's privacy commissioner joins national investigation of facial recognition technology

Alberta's privacy commissioner is taking part in a national investigation of facial recognition technology supplied by U.S. firm Clearview AI.

An announcement Friday states the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, along with the federal privacy commission, Quebec and British Columbia privacy commissioners, will jointly investigate the Canadian use of the technology.

Lauren Reid, president of Toronto-based privacy consulting company The Privacy Pro, said a joint investigation like this is not uncommon.

"This type of technology and this type of data collection doesn't really happen in a single jurisdiction, it happens in cyberspace," she said. "It's borderless."

The Canadian privacy watchdogs will look at whether the company's practices comply with Canadian privacy legislation.

The investigation follows media reports that raised concerns about whether Clearview AI is collecting and using personal information without consent.

This investigation is into Clearview AI under Alberta's private sector privacy law, the Personal Information Protection Act.

The federal government has a separate private-sector privacy law, which applies in all provinces and territories, except for in Alberta, B.C. and Quebec. Those three provinces have their own privacy laws.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
Thomas Peter/Reuters

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.

In a statement to CBC News, Tor Ekeland, attorney for the company said, "Clearview only accesses publicly available data from the public internet.

"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 and look forward to a productive dialogue with Canadian officials."

Edmonton, Calgary police usage

Alberta's privacy commissioner has already urged caution to the Edmonton Police Service as it explores the use of facial recognition technology.

The Alberta commissioner's office strongly encouraged EPS to submit a privacy review to ensure any future facial recognition program complies with privacy law.

"Analytic technologies, such as facial recognition, raise significant concerns regarding privacy and security of personal information," said spokesperson Scott Sibbald in an email to CBC News earlier this month.

EPS Informatics Division Supt. Warren Driechel stressed on Wednesday that Edmonton police's use of the technology would comply with various privacy laws.

Trevor Wilson/CBC
Trevor Wilson/CBC

"With any new technology, we realize the concerns this may raise with the public in terms of privacy and whether it will breach the privacy of everyday citizens," he said.

"I want to ensure everyone that EPS will be using this technology responsibly and for a very specific purpose."

Edmonton police plan to use the technology "in response to existing criminal investigations, using a database of pictures previously obtained for a lawful purpose," such as mug shots, EPS spokesperson Cheryl Sheppard said in a written statement.

EPS has said they are not working with Clearview AI.

On Wednesday, Driechel said EPS was in negotiations with an unnamed company.

I want to ensure everyone that EPS will be using this technology responsibly and for a very specific purpose - Supt. Warren Driechel, EPS

EPS is not the only police force to pursue biometric technology.

Calgary was the first police force in Canada to publicly roll out a facial recognition program in 2014.

Police said the technology there can take a picture of a suspect and, within a matter of seconds, look for a match among over 300,000 mug shots in a police database.

What's next?

As part of the national investigation, privacy regulators across Canada have agreed to develop guidance for organizations — including law enforcement — on the use of biometric technology, including facial recognition, said a statement.

Reid said the national investigation into Clearview AI and its technology won't bring any immediate changes for the public but could set a precedent.

"I don't know that [Friday's] announcement necessarily changes anything for us as consumers but it should give us confidence that our concerns are being heard by the privacy commissioners," she said.

"Bringing this issue to national attention by launching this investigation may mean that other police forces and other organizations are now aware of this and aware that it's unacceptable. And so it might prevent the problem from spreading further."