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Appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI) on their Study of the Use and Impact of Facial Recognition Technology

May 2, 2022

Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Daniel Therrien
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here today and for undertaking this important work on Facial Recognition.

Like all technologies, FRT can, if used responsibly, offer significant benefits to society. However, 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 is different from other technologies in that it relies on biometrics, permanent characteristics that, contrary to a password, cannot be changed. It greatly reduces personal autonomy, including the control individuals should have over their personal information.

Its use encompasses the public and the private sectors, sometimes for compelling purposes like the investigation of serious crimes or proving one’s identity, sometimes for convenience.

The scope of your study is vast. In the time I have available, I will focus on the use of FRT in a law enforcement context.

When we last spoke, my Office had completed its investigation into Clearview AI, a private sector platform that we and our colleagues in Quebec, BC and Alberta found was involved in mass surveillance.

Since then, my office examined the RCMP’s use of Clearview’s technology. We found that the RCMP did not take measures to verify the legality of Clearview’s collection of personal information, and lacked any system to ensure that new technologies were deployed lawfully. Ultimately, we determined the RCMP’s use of Clearview to be unlawful, since it relied on the illegal collection and use of facial images by its business partner.

Building on these findings, we worked with fellow privacy commissioners across Canada to develop joint guidance for police use of facial recognition, meant to assist police in ensuring any use of the technology complies with the law, minimizes risks, and respects privacy rights. We are releasing the final version of the guidance today.

As part of this work, we launched a national public consultation on police use of facial recognition technology.

During this consultation, we heard consistently that the current laws regulating the use of facial recognition did not offer sufficient protection against the risks associated with the technology.

While all stakeholders agreed the law must be clarified, there was no consensus on the content of a new law. Legislators will have to decide how to reconcile various interests.

Following this consultation, fellow provincial and territorial privacy commissioners and I believe the preferred approach should be to adopt a legislative framework based on four key elements, which we have outlined in a joint statement we are issuing today.

First, we recommend that the law clearly and explicitly define the purposes for which police would be authorized to use facial recognition technology, and prohibit other uses. Authorized purposes should be compelling and proportionate to the very high risks of the technology.

Second, since it is not realistic for the law to anticipate all circumstances, it is important that, in addition to limitations on authorized purposes, the law also require police use of FR to be both necessary and proportionate for any given deployment of the technology.

Third, we recommend that police use of FR should be subject to strong independent oversight. Oversight should include proactive engagement measures, program-level authorization or advanced notification before use, and powers to audit and make orders.

Finally, we recommend that appropriate privacy protections be put in place to mitigate risks to individuals, including measures addressing accuracy, retention, and transparency in FR initiatives.

I encourage you to consider our recommendations as you complete your study of this important issue.

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today; I look forward to your questions.

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