Use of controversial surveillance technology demonstrates need to limit police power

This column is an opinion of Kate Schneider, a master’s student at the University of Oxford in Waterloo, Ont. For more information on the CBC Opinion section, please see the FAQs.

Last month, CBC released a report disclosing new details on the Toronto Police Service’s use of the controversial Clearview AI surveillance technology. The results confirmed that Toronto police had used facial recognition software to identify both suspects and victims in dozens of police investigations.

These findings were based on news from February 2020 who initially revealed that several agents had used a trial version of the software, despite refusing to use it a month earlier.

This news in itself is deeply disturbing, and not just for the privacy implications. It reveals a disturbing degree of power held by police forces and how certain technologies can allow the abuse of that power.

Concerns about Clearview AI

The Toronto Police Service is not the only law enforcement agency in Canada to have come under fire for its relationship with Clearview AI. These revelations were announced in the wake of the crisis in Canada Decision of the Privacy Commissioner in June that the RCMP’s use of Clearview AI to retrieve online images of Canadians without their consent violated the Privacy Act. The police services of Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa have also disclosed that they have used – or “tested” – this software in the past.

Clearview AI is based in the United States, but is well known around the world for its facial recognition software. Many law enforcement agencies around the world have admitted to using this technology, including law enforcement agencies. United States, France, Australia, and the UK. Most of those countries have asked Clearview to purge its database of images collected there. It is projected that A quarter US police forces have facial recognition tools.

This facial recognition technology can be applied in a number of situations. Police have been criticized for using it to identify the protesters during public events. They can also extract footage from CCTV cameras near crime scenes and attempt to match identified faces with Clearview AI’s alarming database of over 10 billion images retrieved from social media sites.

The capabilities of Clearview AI are getting more and more sophisticated in terrifying ways. In October 2021, CEO Hoan Ton-That announced that Clearview was developing new facial recognition tools that could make faces disguised for privacy reasons or identify someone even with a mask.

Police face close scrutiny

At a time when the police are already subject to increased surveillance by movements such as Fund the police, the relationship of the Canadian police force with Clearview AI should make us even more skeptical of the expansion of police power.

In particular, the ability of the police to monitor Canadians is of greatest concern to the potential impacts on racialized people, especially blacks and aboriginals.

Although we sometimes claim that racism is uniquely an American problem, Canada has its own established history of racial discrimination carried out by the police. As activist and writer Desmond Cole has documented, Canadian police maintained racial discrimination programs, such as patents. A Ontario Human Rights Commission A 2020 report also found that Toronto police disproportionately target black Canadians.

The technology is often presented as less biased because of the assumptions that it eliminates human bias. However, police surveillance software has been shown to misidentifying racialized people at a higher rate than white suspects.

With all of these factors combined, it is clear that police employing surveillance technology is not just about privacy. It is also a question of racism.

The path to follow

The use of Clearview AI by Canadian police forces demonstrates a need to regulate facial recognition surveillance technologies because of their disturbing abilities to invade our privacy. More fundamentally, it also shows the need to be increasingly wary of the power wielded by the police in Canada.

As can be seen, the speed of technological innovation and the corresponding more sophisticated tools available to law enforcement will only exacerbate the risks of granting extensive police power. While all Canadians should be concerned, our country’s police history shows that racialized people are very likely to suffer disproportionate consequences.

Experts and advocates against police violence have already posed several suggestions to find out how we can limit the power of the police and keep our communities safe in alternative means. Findings about Canadian police and Clearview AI demonstrate that it is time to pay close attention to and act on these requests.


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