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A week ago, the office of the Privacy Commissioner – Daniel Therrien seen here on Dec. 10, 2020 – office and its counterparts in Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta announced they would also jointly investigate Clearview AI and its use of facial-recognition technology.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal Privacy Commissioner’s office said Friday that it has opened an investigation into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s use of facial-recognition technology.

The office said that it made the decision to launch an investigation under the Privacy Act in light of the RCMP’s acknowledgement of its use of such technology.

The technology was created by U.S. company Clearview AI and gathers images from sources to help identify people. Serious concerns, however, have been raised about where the data is stored and if they could lead to the tracking of individuals.

“Given the office is investigating, no further details are available at this time,” the Commissioner’s office said in a statement.

On Thursday, the RCMP said the force generally does not disclose specific tools and technologies used in the course of its investigations, but confirmed that it has recently started to use and explore Clearview AI’s facial-recognition technology “in a limited capacity.”

The RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre has been using and evaluating the company’s software for approximately four months for online child sexual-exploitation investigations, it said in a statement.

“We are also aware of limited use of Clearview AI on a trial basis by a few units in the RCMP to determine its utility to enhance criminal investigations," the force added.

The RCMP will be engaging with the Privacy Commissioner to work in partnership to develop guidelines and policies that conform to legislation and regulations, it said.

“The internet has changed the way child sexual-exploitation offences are committed, investigated and prosecuted, and Clearview AI is only one of many tools/techniques that are used in the identification of victims of online child sexual abuse.”

A week ago, the Privacy Commissioner’s office and its counterparts in Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta announced they would also jointly investigate Clearview AI and its use of facial-recognition technology.

The office said that the joint investigation, which will examine whether the company’s practices comply with Canadian privacy legislation, was initiated in the wake of numerous media reports that raised questions about whether the company is collecting and using personal information without consent.

At the time, the RCMP would not confirm whether it was using Clearview AI. It would only say that the force continues "to monitor new and evolving technology.”

Teresa Scassa, a Canada Research Chair in information law and policy and a professor at the University of Ottawa, said the Privacy Commissioner’s decision to launch an investigation focused on the RCMP raises important questions from a privacy perspective.

The police are a public-sector body governed by privacy legislation, Dr. Scassa said Friday, adding that the RCMP’s use of a data-analytics and an artificial-intelligence service provided by a private-sector company means that the force is not collecting the data.

“The data has been collected by that company, not by the RCMP, and the data is being processed by that company," she said, adding that this case also illustrates how the Privacy Act is out of date.

“Although the investigation is being launched, it is really not clear how the law applies in this kind of situation or how it should apply."

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus, who wrote to the Privacy Commissioner to urge further investigation on the use of technology by police, said Friday that he is concerned that the RCMP may have compromised themselves.

“This is a very, very serious issue of citizen rights,” Mr. Angus said.

Ms. Angus said he is hopeful that the Commissioner will appear before the House of Commons ethics committee soon as part of a study on the use of facial-recognition technology.

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