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Hoan Ton-That, the founder of Clearview AI, tests the company’s app in New York on Jan. 10, 2020.Amr Alfiky/The New York Times News Service

The RCMP broke privacy laws by using a powerful form of facial-recognition software, according to a federal watchdog who wants Parliament to start setting some rules around surveillance technology.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien released a report to Parliament on Thursday about the national police force’s use of software sold by U.S.-based Clearview AI.

The company pulls billions of images of people’s faces from social-media sites and sells its analytical software as a search tool for police forces that want to put names to the faces of suspected criminals whose identities are unknown.

Police are eager to use facial recognition – but this technology needs to be reined in

“What Clearview does is mass surveillance, and it is illegal,” Mr. Therrien said in February, when he and other watchdogs first aired criticisms in a report about dozens of Canadian police forces using Clearview AI.

The previous report did not make specific findings about police conduct. The new one does. “The RCMP contravened the federal public sector law, the Privacy Act, when it collected information from Clearview,” Mr. Therrien said in a statement that accompanied the report, which examined the Mounties’ records on its use of the software.

Clearview AI gave police in Canada access to its search tool from the fall of 2019 to the summer of 2020.

Mr. Therrien’s report said Mounties’ use of the tool cannot be justified under Canadian law. “In our view, a government institution simply cannot collect personal information from a third party agent if that third party’s collection was unlawful in the first place,” Mr. Therrien said.

But he said he expects police are doomed to repeat such controversies until Parliament starts legislating better ground rules around such technology.

“What kind of rules do we need to ensure that the police can use this very powerful technology to catch criminals, but not use it in such a way as to reduce freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly?” Mr. Therrien said at a news conference. “This is really the most difficult question we have to face.”

The new report is a response to a complaint NDP MP Charlie Angus filed nearly a year and a half ago. At that time, media were reporting on police use of the technology, but the Mounties did not admit having the software. The force initially told the privacy commissioner it did not have it.

Mr. Angus said the privacy commissioner’s report highlights disturbing instances of the RCMP withholding information. “What have we learned from this report?” he said on Thursday. “We learned the RCMP lied. They lied to the Canadian public. They lied to the privacy commissioner. They were using Clearview AI software and they pretended they weren’t.”

The Mounties said on Thursday that poor internal controls and a lack of record-keeping about the software resulted in mischaracterizations -- but they are working to fix the problems.

“The RCMP was not initially aware that one of its programs had begun using Clearview AI,” said Robin Percival, an RCMP spokeswoman. “An incomplete survey of RCMP program areas failed to identify those units who were making use of Clearview AI. We responded in error to the privacy commissioner that we were not using the software.”

She said the police force is now following the commissioner’s advice to impose central controls on how technology moves within the organization.

Outside Canada, police call Clearview AI a potential gamechanger -- especially in probes of internet imagery involving the sexual exploitation of children. Authorities are looking for ways to rescue children and uncloak pedophiles who have masked their identities.

The RCMP says it saved two children from abusers through its use of the Clearview AI software, and that it mostly reserved the technology for such investigations.

But in his report, Mr. Therrien said he does not know whether that is accurate. Clearview AI informed his office of more than 500 overall searches by the RCMP. Yet the Mounties’ records did not log what the searches were for. “Only 6 per cent of the RCMP’s searches using Clearview appeared to be related to victim identification,” the privacy commissioner’s report reads. It adds the RCMP “did not account for the vast majority (85 per cent) of the searches.”

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