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The Clearview AI app is displayed on a smart phone in New York on Jan. 10, 2019.Amr Alfiky/The New York Times News Service

Privacy officials in Canada have formally ordered a U.S. facial recognition software company to delete images of Canadians in its database and are preparing to take steps, which could include large fines, if the order is refused.

On Tuesday, privacy commissioners in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec announced they have issued a co-ordinated set of orders against New York-based Clearview AI as they continue to press the company to cease gathering and holding images of their residents.

In 2019 and 2020, several Canadian police forces used Clearview’s powerful software to advance criminal investigations. But detectives ceased doing so amid an outcry that police were using the software without transparency or any apparent limits. The company then stopped offering its controversial product to entities in Canada.

The Clearview AI software is marketed to law enforcement officials. It works well at identifying people in photographs because the company has built a global index of faces by scraping billions of images off social-media sites. Users of the social-media sites, however, have never consented for their images to be used in this way. Nor did the social-media companies sanction Clearview AI’s scraping.

In February, the three provincial privacy commissioners and federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien revealed the findings of a joint investigation. It alleged that the software had been used in contravention of federal and provincial privacy laws that give Canadians control of how their images are used.

The privacy commissioners vowed then to take follow-up actions if Clearview did not delete Canadians’ faces. Through this month’s issue of formal orders, they have now done so.

“Clearview refused to comply with the recommendations by arguing it could not comply with them,” reads the order from B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. “The commissioner considered and rejected Clearview’s position and issued a binding order to comply with the recommendations.”

The company responded Tuesday by saying faces are just another form of data. “Clearview AI is a search engine that only collects public data just as much larger companies do, including Google,” the company’s Canadian lawyer, Doug Mitchell, said in statement. “Clearview believes the orders being sought are beyond the powers of the provincial privacy commissioners,” he added.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has issued no orders because it has no legislated powers to act against corporations. Nor do several provincial privacy commissioners.

Other provincial offices, however, have heightened powers. For example, the B.C. legislation allows its privacy officials to impose “a fine of not more than $100,000″ against organizations found to flout privacy laws.

Each of the provincial privacy commissioner orders issued this month give Clearview AI weeks to comply with the formal orders to delete Canadians’ faces. The timelines vary but the shared demand is for Clearview to purge the images this winter.

The orders also quote exchanges that the privacy officials had with Clearview AI in which the company says it cannot comply with the purging of orders. “It is simply not possible, merely from photographs, to identify whether the individuals in the photographs are in Canada at the time the photograph was taken, or whether they are Canadian citizens, residents, etc.”

In November, Australian privacy officials also demanded Clearview AI purge the images of Australians.

When the software was still being used in Canada in early 2020, many police forces publicly denied using the software despite their detectives having done so. Eventually, the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police issued statements indicating facial recognition was used in order to help identify and rescue some minors seen being sexually abused in anonymized internet images exchanged by pedophiles.

February’s joint investigation by the four privacy commissioners found that 48 entities in Canada had obtained accounts with Clearview starting in 2019. Most often these organizations were police forces. But unidentified “commercial entities” in Canada were said to have used the software, too.

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