The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has released two reports examining the state of facial recognition technology (FRT) in Canada and globally, and is calling for a moratorium on the controversial technology.

In a Jan. 28 statement, the CCLA said the moratorium should be in place “until Canadians are protected from misuse with strong, effective legislation.” The organization cited multiple examples of FRT exposing Canadians to possible violations of their privacy and security, which coincides with the technology’s increased use by state authorities and commercial users.

Brenda McPhail, the director of the CCLA, said the lack of specific and comprehensive national legislation on facial recognition in Canada is discouraging. Moreover, the direction that the regulation of FRT will take in Canada still remains unclear.

“We are seeing an explosion of Facial Recognition Technology,” McPhail said in the news release. “But we are seeing no corresponding rise in oversight. In Canada, there have been clear abuses of this technology and as this evolves further – and more private sector and governmental organizations deploy it, we need Canadians to understand the risks to their privacy and the pitfalls of the technology.”

Clearview AI, for example, scraped images from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other websites in violation of the terms of use of these platforms and without the consent of individuals. Some Toronto Police Service members had been using Clearview AI without the police chief’s knowledge or consent.

And last October, it was confirmed that an investigation into Cadillac Fairview by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found that the company had subjected Canadians to facial analysis without their consent when shopping in malls across the country.

Overall, the CCLA report says that the legal and regulatory environment for facial recognition in Canada is, in relation to the United States, comparatively underdeveloped. As mentioned earlier, Canada lacks thorough national-scale legislation that applies specifically to facial recognition, and the case is similar in the U.S. But, unlike the U.S., there is a conspicuous lack of provincial laws and local bans/moratoriums in place to fill the legal and regulatory gap, indicating that the American patchwork of municipal bans and state laws can serve as a sort of policy roadmap for regulating facial recognition technology in Canada. 

But there are indicators that the Canadian legal and regulatory environment in relation to facial recognition technology is slowly turning the corner. For one, there appears to be growing interest on the part of municipal policymakers in ordinances that provide safeguards against the use of FRT. 

In 2020, for example, Montreal city councillor Marvin Rotrand introduced a motion reminiscent of facial recognition ordinances adopted by American municipalities in that it would require “city police to obtain city council approval before buying, renting, deploying or using facial recognition technology,” among other surveillance tools. On the provincial level, Ontario’s provincial government appears to be considering introducing a new provincial privacy law for the private sector, as evidenced by Ontario’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services (MGCS) launching a consultation session on such a topic in August 2020.

While FRT is not explicitly mentioned, the report shows how the discussion paper for the consultation session intriguingly acknowledges that improving or otherwise clarifying transparency and consent requirements for the collection of personal information are “key areas for reform.” This is especially promising, as it suggests that any potential new privacy law would in some way address these two legal areas, which the report has identified as being clearly pertinent to the use of FRT. 

The CCLA’s international report can be accessed here.

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