Police use of facial biometrics raising privacy concerns, calls for regulation in Canada, Scotland
Law enforcement agencies around the world have been showing keen interest in biometric facial recognition, but privacy advocates fear the lack of substantial regulation may generate privacy and human rights violations. While some Canadian and British police units have already rolled out facial recognition in successful investigations, opinions are divided even among members of government whose concerns have not been assuaged.
Biometric facial recognition grows in police popularity in Canada
Canadian law enforcement is rapidly adopting biometric facial recognition to use in criminal investigations, but privacy advocates are warning that these advanced technologies are “intrusive” and they “need to be regulated,” writes CBC.
At the moment, because there is no Canadian regulation or data policy that addresses biometric data collection, the country lacks a minimum privacy standard, visibility and has no strategy for risk mitigation, warns the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
So far, both Calgary and Toronto police have introduced facial recognition technology, and Edmonton and Saskatoon are looking into it. Montreal police did not comment, while Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver claim not to use facial recognition.
The RCMP say they “continue to monitor new and evolving technology.”
“I think legislators and policy-makers need to turn their minds to this,” said David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with McInnes Cooper in Halifax.
“We need to have this discussion, and the police need to be dragged into that discussion, out of the shadows where they’re making decisions about currently deploying this sort of technology.”
Fraser fears the use of biometric facial recognition technology could jeopardize privacy.
“Broadly speaking, our office has identified facial recognition as having the potential to be the most highly invasive of the current popular biometric identifying technologies,” Vito Pilieci, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, told CBC.
Last year, a number of privacy advocates from the country asked the government to review data privacy laws to ensure they are up to speed with technological innovation, but according to Nova Scotia’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner there is no legal specification in any province about facial recognition technology.
However, there may be some privacy laws at provincial level that, although vague, may address biometric data, claims Janet Burt-Gerrans, the acting director and chief privacy officer with the Nova Scotia office.
Canada’s Privacy Act coordinates how federal entities interact with individuals’ personal information, but it does not include provincial or municipal police. The RCMP, for example, “can only collect personal information that relates directly to its mandate as Canada’s national police force,” said the Department of Justice.
Plans regarding stronger regulations for facial recognition are unclear.
“We’ve consistently seen from the police that their understanding of reasonable expectation of privacy is completely disconnected from what most of us think a reasonable expectation of privacy is, so we can’t have police making those decisions,” Fraser said.
According to Calgary police, they have successfully deployed the technology to cut down time spent identifying suspects, obtaining results in less than two minutes.
“We just have a database that’s just purely for Calgary,” said Staff Sgt. Gordon MacDonald from Calgary police.
“Canada has such a transient population. People go from province to province and subjects of interest may appear in Calgary and they may be a resident of Edmonton. And, of course, our system would never find a possible match.”
While a national database is expected to solve the problem, Fraser warns the responsible institutions need to first figure out regulations for the system to be properly used.
“These sorts of initiatives are probably happening outside of view and so we need to put in place regulations before we end up with a de facto national database,” Fraser said.
“They don’t get to use every tool at their disposal,” he added. “They get to use appropriate tools. There are intrusive technologies that need to be regulated, because they could be horrifically abused, or they could be mildly abused in a widespread sort of way that leads to a significant diminution in our privacy rights.”
Live facial recognition for police investigations put on hold by Scottish MSPs
In Scotland, MSPs have released a report saying police use of live facial recognition is “known to discriminate against females and those from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities,” the BBC reports, adding that “the use of live facial recognition technology would be a radical departure from Police Scotland’s fundamental principle of policing by consent.”
Police Scotland had initially planned to introduce the biometric crowd scanning technology by 2026, following a 10-year strategy plan. According to the committee, before rolling out the technology, the police needs to make sure it does not violate human rights or data protection requirements. The plan has been put on hold.
According to convener John Finnie, the technology “throws up far too many ‘false positives'” and “contains inherent biases.”
“It is clear that this technology is in no fit state to be rolled out or indeed to assist the police with their work. Our inquiry has also shone light on other issues with facial recognition technology that we now want the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and the Scottish government to consider,” Finnie said.
“Not least amongst these are the legal challenges against similar technologies in England and Wales, and the apparent lack of law explicitly governing its use in Scotland – by any organization. So, whether this technology is being used by private companies, public authorities or the police, the Scottish government needs to ensure there is a clear legal framework to protect the public and police alike from operating in a facial recognition Wild West.”
Last month, the Metropolitan Police in the U.K. rolled out in London real-time facial recognition technology developed by NEC.
After winning a facial recognition legal challenge last year, South Wales police has recently been criticized for facial recognition use at a football derby.
In response, Police Scotland assures they “would carry out a robust program of public consultation and engagement around the use of this technology, its legitimacy, viability and value for money.”