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Ontario privacy commissioner addresses police facial recognition mugshot programs

Ontario privacy commissioner addresses police facial recognition mugshot programs

A release from Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) says it has published new guidelines for the lawful use of biometric facial recognition and mugshot databases by police. Formally entitled “Facial Recognition and Mugshot Databases: Guidance for Police in Ontario,” the document comes in the wake of controversies surrounding the collection of biometric data by police forces across Canada.

“At the time of publication of this guidance,” it reads, “the lawfulness of police facial recognition mugshot programs, including compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, has yet to be addressed by the courts or a tribunal. Meanwhile, there is no clear or comprehensive set of legal rules in effect in Ontario governing police use of facial recognition technology, including for mugshot database programs.”

These new guidelines aim to be a partial remedy to that. They lay out a series of key legal and policy considerations for pre-implementation, operational and review phases of programs wherein police use facial recognition software to identify individuals using a mugshot database in Ontario. The IPC is explicit in specifying that the guidelines are not an endorsement of using FRT to search mugshot databases, but are designed to help law enforcement stay on the right side of access and privacy laws.

Among the key considerations listed for pre-implementation, the first is lawful authority and lawful operation – “a carefully considered, incremental, transparent, and accountable approach to using facial recognition” that complies with all legal requirements. Guiding principles around proportionate use, purpose and human rights are also to be closely considered. Privacy impacts, public engagement and transparency are also flagged as important, in a familiar litany of recommended safeguards and ethical pillars mounted to try and limit the potential for misuse.

Operationally, there is more technical advice. This includes the setting of standards for image quality metrics such as pixel density and lighting, evaluating systems for bias, operator training, and documentation. Of significant concern in the nine key operational considerations is the question of retention – a hot button issue for Ontario human rights watchdogs, who say black people and racial minorities are grossly overrepresented in police databases of biometric information. Consideration number 10 addresses the retention of probe images once a facial recognition search is complete, and number 12 states that “policies and procedures should ensure that any collection, retention, use, or disclosure of records related to your FR mugshot database program is limited and consistent with the law.”

In general, the guidelines highlight the manifold potential ethical concerns with police use of facial recognition and mugshot databases – but also underline the limitations of such guidelines, in that they are ultimately dependent on police following the laws they enforce.

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