Criminal Law

Concerns over police using facial recognition tools 'very real'

By Staff

Canadians should urge their governments to follow the lead of San Francisco and ban the use of facial recognition tools by police services, Toronto criminal lawyer Jill Presser tells The Lawyer’s Daily.

Presser, principal of Presser Barristers, tells the online legal publication that police in Toronto, Calgary, and Ottawa use facial recognition software to capture images that may identify individuals already known to police. For more than a year, the Toronto Police Service has been using facial recognition to compare subject images against a database of 1.5 million mugshots, she tells The Lawyer’s Daily.

“This means that police are feeding images of folks in Toronto, captured as we go about our daily business, into an algorithmic tool that is trained to identify faces. These could be photos from a crime scene caught on cellphone cameras, images caught by video surveillance cameras in department stores or public parking garages, they could be stills or videos caught by the myriad cameras we happen to pass every day,” says Presser, whose practice includes extensive work in the areas of digital privacy and artificial intelligence.

“We may or may not know we have been photographed. We may or may not have consented to our images being captured, memorialized and used by the police,” she tells the legal publication.

A Toronto Star article says Police Chief Mark Saunders reported the use of facial recognition tools to the Toronto Police Service Board in mid-May, more than a year after it came into use.

“It seems that the Toronto police quietly ran a pilot project to test facial recognition tools in Toronto from September 2014 to September 2015,” Presser tells The Lawyer’s Daily.

“With little or no public consultation or scrutiny, Toronto police issued a request for proposals for a facial recognition tool of its own in 2017,” she says, adding that with the same lack of public input or knowledge police selected an NEC Corporation of America facial recognition tool.

They have since installed and contracted NEC for maintenance and support of the technology until 2023.

“Just like that, our police service has a tool that helps it surveil people in their day-to-day movements around Toronto,” she says.

“San Francisco recently banned the use of the very same kind of facial recognition algorithmic tools that the Toronto Police Service is now using. There, the ban was motivated by privacy and civil liberties concerns, by concern over the potential for misuse, and the concern over potential state and law enforcement overreach. These are very real concerns. Ones Torontonians should share.

“Notwithstanding the law enforcement benefits that facial recognition algorithms may offer, we need to worry about facial recognition. We need to ask our legislators to consider following San Francisco’s example,” Presser tells The Lawyer’s Daily.

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