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Clearview AI’s facial recognition service called an ‘illegal’ ‘mass surveillance’ tool in Canada

What facial recognition company Clearview does is “mass surveillance”, and “illegal” — the company should delete all images of Canadians from its database, and stop offering its services to Canadian clients,the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said on Wednesday. A joint investigation by four privacy commissioner offices in the country found that Clearview AI’s facial recognition service was a clear violation of the privacy rights of Canadians.

The year-long investigation found that Clearview had collected highly sensitive biometric information without the knowledge or consent of individuals. It had also collected, used, and disclosed personal information of Canadians’ for “inappropriate” purposes, which cannot be rendered appropriate via consent.

The country had initiated its investigation into the company after a damning report in the New York Times had revealed that Clearview AI covertly built up its facial dataset by pulling facial data from publicly available images online, including from Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube, news articles, and more. The result is a database of unprecedented scale — over 3 billion images to be exact — to readily identify any person walking on the street, with just a single image.

“It is completely unacceptable for millions of people who will never be implicated in any crime to find themselves continually in a police lineup,” said Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner of Canada. “Yet the company continues to claim its purposes were appropriate, citing the requirement under federal privacy law that its business needs be balanced against privacy rights”. He said that in a conflict between commercial objectives and privacy protection, Canadians’ privacy rights should prevail.

At least one Indian police department — the Vadodara City Police — has piloted Clearview AI’s software in 2020, MediaNama had reported earlier. It was also planning to use the software in public places such as railway stations and bus depots, and to track “property offenders”.

Clearview claimed it collected facial data from public images

In response to the findings of the investigation, Clearview AI contended that:

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  • Consent was not required because the information was publicly available
  • Canadian privacy laws do not apply to its activities because the company does not have a “real and substantial connection” to Canada
  • People who had their images on public websites did not have “substantial privacy concerns”
  • Clearview cannot be held responsible for offering services to law enforcement or any other entity that subsequently makes an error in its assessment of the person being investigated.

Clearview violated people’s ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’: regulators

The Canadian privacy commissioners said they were “particularly concerned that the organization did not recognize that the mass collection of biometric information from billions of people, without express consent, violated the reasonable expectation of privacy of individuals and that the company was of the view that its business interests outweighed privacy rights”.

Since Clearview collected the images of Canadians, and actively marketed its services to law enforcement agencies in Canada, the commissioners said that Canadian laws applied to the company. In fact, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police (RCMP) became a paying customer of Clearview AI, and a total of 48 accounts were created for law enforcement and other organisations across the country.

India is deploying facial recognition systems left, right, and centre

As facial recognition services receive scrutiny in the United States, European Union, and Canada, among other countries, the narrative in India is considerably different. The use of facial recognition technology is proliferating across the country, as several departments of the Indian government alongside state governments and their respective police departments have adopted the technology. Local police departments are purchasing, or piloting facial recognition algorithms — for instance, the Vadodara city police piloted Clearview AI’s controversial facial recognition system. States like Telangana have also piloted the technology in civic elections, and are mulling introducing the tool for obtaining ration at fair price shops.

Recently, the Central Board of Secondary Education rolled out a facial recognition system — sans a privacy policy — for students to download their academic documents. The National Crime Records Bureau is currently working towards building a national level facial recognition system, and only very recently revealed that it wants to test the system on mask-wearing faces, and for it to generate “comprehensive biometric reports”. While several airports have added facial recognition systems as an additional way for passengers to board flights, the Indian Railways’ central division is also considering setting up similar facial recognition systems at some of its premises in Parel, we had earlier reported. Bengaluru’s railway station is gearing up to be surveilled by CCTV cameras capable of carrying out facial recognition, at a cost of over ₹4.5 crore.

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