Skip to main content

It would no doubt be extremely upsetting to Canadians to discover that private companies and police services had indiscriminately collected their fingerprints and their DNA, and had put them in a database.

And yet, companies and cops have been able to do just that with so-called faceprints – biometric facial data that are as personal and unchanging as the whorls on an index finger or the sequencing in DNA – usually without anyone’s consent.

Worse, in Canada, the collection and use of facial-recognition technology is basically unregulated. This was among the chief concerns raised this week by Canada’s provincial, territorial and federal privacy watchdogs, in a joint statement to Parliament’s standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics.

“Unlike other forms of biometrics collected by police agencies, such as photographs, fingerprints or DNA profiles, facial-recognition use is not subject to any focused statutory rules,” Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien told the committee. “Instead, its use is regulated through a patchwork of statutes and case law that, for the most part, do not specifically address the risks posed by facial recognition.”

This is beyond worrisome, because the risks are huge.

Unlike the collection of fingerprints or DNA – time-consuming processes that require human intervention – the collection and analysis of facial-recognition data can be completely automated, thanks to artificial intelligence.

It can also be done without the consent or even the knowledge of the person involved. This was the case with Clearview AI, a U.S. company that scraped social-media websites and other public online sources for personal photographs, and created a database of biometric facial data attached to the identifying information of more than three billion people.

After it came to light that some Canadian polices forces, including the RCMP, were using Clearview’s services, the federal privacy commissioner and three provincial counterparts ordered it to stop operating in Canada, and to delete images of Canadians from its database.

The Clearview case is a stark demonstration of the dangers of facial-recognition technology.

The privacy commissioners made it clear in their statement to the committee that facial recognition can be a valuable tool for law enforcement, for national security, and in searching for missing people. But it can also be “extremely intrusive, enable widespread surveillance, provide biased results, and erode human rights, including the right to participate freely, without surveillance, in democratic life.”

It’s easy to imagine how that could be true.

People who take part in a legal, public protest aren’t all fingerprinted by police, and their prints aren’t run through a database, just because they showed up. Obviously not. That would never be permitted in Canada.

So why would police be able to use surveillance cameras to capture the faces of protesters, or anyone in a public place, and run the images through a faceprint database? For many, that would be a deterrent to taking part in a legal and democratic activity.

Parliament needs to heed the privacy commissioners’ advice and move quickly to ensure that Canadians’ ancient rights aren’t eviscerated by new technologies.

The law should clearly state when biometric facial data – just like fingerprints and DNA – can be collected, from whom, and under what authority. The use of facial-recognition technology should be “targeted, intelligence-led, and subject to appropriate time limitations,” the privacy commissioners said. And mass face-scanning should only be permitted in the most rare of circumstances.

There should also be a ban on the indiscriminate collection of biometric facial data. There is good reason why the state collects the fingerprints of convicted offenders; adding their faceprint to a database would make sense. But building mass databases of the faceprints of everyday Canadians simply cannot be allowed, for commercial or police purposes, in a free country.

After seven years in power, and a lot of talk, the Trudeau government has had no success passing laws to rein in Big Tech, or to tackle online harassment and disinformation. But those headline-catching issues pale in comparison to the threat to our freedoms from mass surveillance by facial recognition. It’s an issue that is staring us in the face, and it needs to be addressed.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.