The Canadian military’s special forces command and five major police forces are the latest agencies to confirm they’ve tested facial-recognition technology that’s drawn international criticism and prompted investigations by the country’s privacy regulators.
Canadian Special Forces Command, along with police departments in York, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver all confirmed their employees have used the tool created by Clearview AI, the embattled U.S. start-up that uses artificial intelligence to match people’s images against its database of billions of photos scraped from the internet.
The revelations come one day after the Toronto Star detailed the increasingly widespread use by Canadian law enforcement and private companies of the tool, which has been lambasted by critics and prompted two ongoing investigations by regulators over concerns it breaks Canadian privacy laws.
“It appears that there’s no oversight, so a police officer on his own can do rogue searches, or a Rexall employee can do rogue searches. That’s the danger of letting a company have so much control over our personal images in a legislative and judicial vacuum,” NDP MP Charlie Angus told the Star in an interview.
“The potential for abuse is enormous right now.”
On Friday, a spokesperson for the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command confirmed it used a free trial version of Clearview AI, testing it on public pictures of “inanimate objects, animals and people.” The Canadian Special Forces Command does not have a contract with Clearview AI, the spokesperson said.
“In a rapidly changing and unpredictable world, (Canadian Special Operations Forces Command) is constantly working to protect its ability to respond to adversaries who are increasingly skilled in their capacity to integrate digital technologies,” said the spokesperson.
As of Friday, 13 Canadian police services that previously told the Star they didn’t use Clearview AI have since confirmed individual officers signed up for trials of the tool without the knowledge or consent of police leadership. None of these police services — from Halifax to Barrie to Regina — had a formal agreement with the company, and all have directed officers to stop using the tool.
On Thursday, the RCMP confirmed it had been using Clearview AI for months, after previously refusing to confirm if the force used the app. Hours later, the federal privacy commissioner said it was launching an investigation into the Mounties’ use of the technology.
The Star also revealed an employee of Rexall used the software to conduct shoplifting-related searches. The pharmacy chain has since stopped using Clearview AI.
Revelations showing the widespread testing of Clearview AI in Canada were prompted by data obtained by BuzzFeed News and shared exclusively with the Toronto Star. According to the data, Canada is Clearview’s largest market outside of the U.S., with officers in at least 34 police forces signing up to test the tool on a trial basis.
Clearview AI has not responded to repeated requests from the Star for comment on Thursday and Friday. Earlier this week, a Clearview AI lawyer told other media that someone got unauthorized access to the company’s client list through a “flaw.”
“Unfortunately, data breaches are part of life in the 21st century. Our servers were never accessed. We patched the flaw and continue to work to strengthen our security,” Tor Ekeland told other media this week.
Ekeland told BuzzFeed News that there are “numerous inaccuracies in this illegally obtained information. As there is an ongoing Federal investigation, we have no further comment.”
Industry Minister Navdeep Bains noted on Friday that the Liberals have committed to updating privacy laws and fleshing out their so-called “digital charter” — 10 loose principles revealed last May that include citizens’ rights to control their own data.
MPs from all parties said Friday that Clearview AI — and police use of facial recognition software generally — demanded a Parliamentary investigation.
“With evolving spaces such as this – far too often governments are too slow to react,” said Conservative Michael Barrett in a statement to the Star. “The privacy of Canadians must be respected while ensuring that tools which can potentially aid law enforcement are brought forward.”
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“We believe that this issue is very timely given recent reports,” wrote the committee’s Liberal vice chair, Brenda Shanahan.
Ottawa police announced Friday that officers from the force’s Internet Child Exploitation Unit created accounts and tested the tool. The force also launched a servicewide poll to determine the exact number of the downloads, a process expected to take four to six weeks.
“Once this survey is complete and a full review is conducted on the instances where the Clearview AI was used, we will report the findings, along with any relevant recommendations, to the Ottawa Police Services Board,” said a spokesperson.
York Regional police also confirmed that “individual officers were offered and accessed the Clearview AI free trial without the authorization or awareness of our command,” according to spokesperson.
“As soon as we learned of this, officers were directed to stop using the trial immediately.”
Edmonton police also announced Friday that it was launching an internal review into unauthorized use of Clearview AI by three investigators, who learned about the tool at a conference and used during an auto theft investigation. Chief Dale McFee has directed members to stop using the technology.
A Vancouver police spokesperson also confirmed Friday that a detective from the Internet Child Exploitation team created a free Clearview AI account after attending a workshop in Ontario and learning about the software.
“I’m told that the senior leaders in our investigations division have taken steps to ensure all members know that the software is not authorized for use by the VPD,” the spokesperson said.
The Bloc Québécois vice-chair, Marie-Hélène Gaudreau, said in an interview that her party is calling on the government to bring in some kind of moratorium on police use of facial recognition until Parliament has a chance to complete its study.
“Because right now, it’s going too fast,” Gaudreau said.