Facial recognition technology can enable widespread surveillance, provide biased results and erode other human rights, says Canada’s privacy commissioner. In a presentation to a parliamentary committee, Daniel Therrien warned that the technology has the potential to be “extremely privacy invasive.”
A case involving the Clearview AI company was used to illustrate the dangers. In February 2021, Therrien and three provincial privacy commissioners found that the firm had violated Canadian privacy laws when it collected more than three billion images of Canadians without their knowledge or consent. It then allowed law enforcement groups and companies to compare photos to this database. Despite the commissioners’ findings, the company refused to follow recommendations that included deleting Canadians’ photos.
‘This is not the kind of society we want to live in’
“The Clearview case demonstrates how citizens are vulnerable to mass surveillance, facilitated by the use of facial recognition technology,” said Therrien to the committee. “This is not the kind of society we want to live in. The freedom to live and develop free from surveillance is a fundamental human right…The right to privacy is a prior condition to the exercise of other rights in our society. Poorly regulated uses of facial recognition technology therefore not only pose serious risks to privacy rights but also impact the ability to exercise other rights such as freedom of expression and association, equality, and democracy.”
The federal government recently introduced proposals that would modernize Canada’s privacy law. Therrien said the proposed new legislation needs significant amendments to reduce the risks from facial recognition technology. He said that where there is a conflict between commercial objectives and privacy protection, Canadians’ privacy rights should prevail, and that accountability measures are needed to protect Canadians. He also called for strong compliancy mechanisms that provide quick and effective remedies for individuals.
“The nature of the risks posed by facial recognition technology calls for collective reflection on the limits of acceptable use of this technology,” concluded Therrien. “These limits should be defined not only by the risks associated with specific facial recognition initiatives, but by taking into account the aggregate societal effects of all such initiatives over time.”