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RCMP still interested in facial recognition software

Despite criticism that current facial recognition software is biased against people of colour, the RCMP is still interested in the technology, according to the head of the RCMP’s technical support team.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t look at what’s happening around the globe around the use of facial recognition in policing,” Deputy Commissioner Bryan Larkin said in an interview Monday.

However, he said there must first be public discussion and perhaps legislative changes before the force uses it again.

“As a civil society, a law enforcement profession, these are discussions as we look to the future of technology we should be having. We should be developing legislation and processes and technological uses.”

Acting on the recommendations of the federal privacy commissioner after its 2021 investigation into the official and unofficial use of the Clearview AI facial recognition software by a number of Canadian police forces, the Mounties created a technology review group called the National Technology Onboarding Program, Larkin pointed out. It includes experts to review and look at the privacy impact of any deployment of new technology acquired and deployed by the RCMP.

The RCMP was a paying customer of Clearview AI, one of 48 law enforcement and other organizations that officially or unofficially used the software.

But after the federal privacy commissioner and three provincial privacy commissioners began an investigation, Clearview agreed to stop providing its services in Canada. It stopped offering trial accounts to Canadian organizations and discontinued services in July 2020.

Last year the commissioners released a report finding the scraping of billions of images of Canadians from across the internet by Clearview represented mass surveillance, and was a clear violation of their privacy rights.

Larkin’s comments Monday were part of a broader interview on the RCMP’s use of what it calls on-device interception techniques (ODITs), and what critics call spyware. Last week Larkin was one of three Mounties who testified before the House of Commons ethics and privacy committee on the use of ODITs, after the government filed a report that outlined how the Mounties have been intercepting communications on mobile devices, with court orders, for some time.

Civil rights groups like the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are critical of the use of spyware, demanding to know if the RCMP uses commercially-available applications that they say are abused by some governments to target reporters and human rights activists.

Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert told the committee that Canada should penalize spyware firms that are known to have aided human rights abuses abroad, and should develop procurement guidelines to forbid government departments from buying products from those firms.

In November, the U.S. added Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO to its Entity List, effectively banning any American company from doing business with NSO unless it receives explicit permission.

In Monday’s interview, Larkin said he doesn’t think a temporary moratorium on the use of mobile interception applications in criminal investigations until there is a public debate is justified.

“These are significant investigations we do, ones of national security, targeting organized crime, cybersecurity, and large operations,” he said. “To cease using this technology in the interim would potentially put our national safety at risk.”

During the interview he repeated several times that ODITs have only been used by the RCMP with the authorization of a judge.

The force has been using mobile interception technology since 2002, he said. In 2017 the RCMP began using the term ODITs internally and at the same time began closer tracking of their use. As the parliamentary committee was told, since 2017 ODITs have been used in 32 investigations involving 49 devices.

Much of what Larkin said in the interview was a repeat of the RCMP testimony in the committee. “We (the RCMP) have significant rigour, significant policy internally that ensure the privacy of those that we are investigating is at the forefront,” he said. “We do this with judicial authorization. We also recognize there are gaps in current legislation as technology is evolving, and we want to work with the committee, to work with government to increase and enhance legislation. We want to mitigate those privacy concerns, mitigate those gaps in legislation.”

For example, he said, other countries have legislated what technologies can and can’t be used by law enforcement agencies.

And while the RCMP makes sure it is following the Charter of Rights, it doesn’t want rules that impede criminal investigations.

“We do think there’s an appropriate opportunity to continue to find balance, to find trust in the systems, as well as ensuring that those who pose a risk to all Canadians are properly investigated under the Criminal Code.” Those opportunities, he said, include the work of the ethics committee and a just-started review by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians — which reports to the Prime Minister — on the lawful interception of communications by security and intelligence organizations.

One issue the committee raised was the testimony of the current and former federal privacy commissioners that they were caught unaware of the RCMP’s use of ODITs. Some members of the committee were also annoyed that it is taking the force quite a while to assemble a privacy impact assessment of the technology, although it has been in use for years. That allowed one MP to accuse the Mounties of having “a culture of cavalier intrusions on privacy.”

In response, Larkin said Monday that the force is charged with ensuring the safety of Canadians through the Charter of Rights. Court approval for ODITs is only asked for after all other investigative methods are exhausted, he said.  “There are many mechanisms of oversight, many mechanisms of accountability.”

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