Canadian lawmakers demand clearer answers on facial recognition from national police
A standing committee of Canadian Members of Parliament examining face biometrics use in the country saw further clarification of the RCMP’s use of facial recognition and the expected safeguards. The hearing was also beset by allegations from lawmakers that unclear testimony from the RCMP is leading to a lack of trust.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics stood for another day after being urged by privacy advocates a week ago to legislate facial recognition protections for civilians while granting police certain instances to use it.
Gordon Sage, the director general of sensitive and specialized investigative services at the RCMP, was first asked by MP Damien Kurek how many cases were tried or convicted by Clearview AI’s facial recognition. Sage said no prosecutions were made with the biometric technology, but it was used to identify two files in the child exploitation center when a when a person outside of Canada tried to exploit two children in Canada, and on an international case from 2011 where a victim was not able to be identified by traditional means. Facial recognition identified the latter victim as someone in the U.S.
Sage says tests of facial recognition technology were conducted with the faces of RCMP staff and celebrities, but found that it was not always effective and led to identification problems. This made it only, “a tool in the toolbox, and not rely on that, because you do need that human intervention to identify who the victim is because it is not always correct.”
To address privacy and transparency concerns, Robert Seguin, a researcher at the RCMP, provided an overview of the national technology onboarding program to meet recommendations from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Seguin told MP Ya’ara Saks that any technology will be analyzed for their privacy, bias, ethics, and legal perspective before their use in operations or investigations.
As per recommendation, Seguin told the committee that the RCMP has until June 2022 to implement the onboarding program. He added that there is a slight risk that all the training will not be done by then and there may be a capacity issue due to recruitment, but the key foundations — policy review, technology assessment, tech inventory for awareness oversight, public awareness and transparency — will be set by then.
But the committee took on a more heated tone when Saks probed Seguin on whether partner organizations or contracted technology companies will be accountable under the program, or just the RCMP itself. Seguin told Saks that the program will be implemented only for the RCMP, to which Saks responded by asking if how the accountability of third parties can be ensured even with a facial recognition technology framework in place. Seguin quickly said the RCMP will “definitely” uphold accountability for biometric technology suppliers if it leverages facial recognition.
Tensions further escalated when MP Matthew Green challenged Sage to provide the name of the predecessor who authorized the Clearview AI facial recognition software in 2018, which Sage said he could not answer due to him being retired. Green was not satisfied, criticizing Sage for a failure to meet the duty of candour. “What I have is a significant trust issue,” Green said. He told Sage that the RCMP, “in my view, has not demonstrated the candour and frankness with civilian oversight bodies like the House of Commons to provide basic info for Canadians concerned about their civil liberties.”
Similarly, MP Greg Fergus, who said he tried to keep an open mind about facial recognition technology despite not being for it, bemoaned the “lack of answers” from the RCMP witnesses.
MP James Bezan questioned whether Clearview AI’s web scraping would lead to more harm than good with child exploitation. Sage told Bezan that Clearview AI’s face biometrics were not always correct, which is why they had human intervention to discover false negatives. But Bezan in his final question that was unanswered, wondered whether false positives and false negatives would undermine the use of facial recognition in a court of law.
Bezan later said that he found the RCMP witnesses “intentionally evasive” and said they could be found in contempt of Parliament if they did not cooperate.
Crucially, Saks, Green, and Bezan each represent one of the three main national Canadian political parties.
The committee ended with the MPs agreeing to ask RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to attend.