Toronto Police Service confirms some members tested Clearview AI's controversial facial recognition tool

WATCH: The Toronto Police Service has admitted to using a controversial facial recognition app from Clearview AI, without the knowledge of Chief Mark Saunders, who halted the activity on Feb. 5.

Members of the Toronto Police Service had been testing a controversial facial recognition tool by Clearview AI since last fall and were ordered to stop using it earlier this month.

“Some members of the Toronto Police Service began using Clearview AI in October 2019 with the intent of informally testing this new and evolving technology,” police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said in an email to Global News on Thursday.

“The Chief directed that its use be halted immediately upon his awareness, and the order to cease using the product was given on February 5, 2020.”

RELATED: Ontario watchdog would be ‘very concerned’ about police using tools like Clearview AI

This was weeks after the New York Times first reported that hundreds of law enforcement agencies were using Clearview AI’s app, which cross-references uploaded images of people against three billion photos it says it has in a database of images scraped from social media and millions of other websites.

The Clearview AI database is more expansive than any other known collection created by the U.S. government or law enforcement agencies — and has alarmed many advocates who consider it to be a massive invasion of privacy.

In response to a request from Global News in January as to whether the Toronto Police has used Clearview AI, the police service initially said it does use facial recognition software, but not by Clearview AI.

Gray said this was based on information provided by some areas of the police service, which said they did not use Clearview AI, but not all areas of the service. As it turned out, other areas of the service were testing Clearview AI.


“We have requested the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Crown Attorneys Office work with us to review the technology and its appropriateness as an investigative tool for our purposes given that it is also used by other law enforcement agencies in North America,” Gray said in the email.

“Until a fulsome review of the product is completed, it will not be used by the Toronto Police Service.”

Brian Beamish, information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, told Global News on Thursday that his office had not been aware that the Toronto Police Service was using Clearview AI technology until it was contacted by them on Feb. 5.

“We are relieved that its use has been halted,” wrote Beamish.” The indiscriminate scraping of the internet to collect images of people’s faces for law enforcement purposes has significant privacy implications for all Ontarians. We have made it clear in the past that my office should be consulted before this type of technology is used.”

Beamish added that there are “vital privacy issues at stake with the use of any facial recognition technology” and that his office will be consulting with the Toronto Police Service shortly and re-examining their use of facial recognition technology and the appropriateness of using Clearview AI.

“We question whether there are any circumstances where it would be acceptable to use Clearview AI,” he wrote.

A spokesperson for Toronto Mayor John Tory said the mayor was notified on Thursday that the Toronto Police Service was using Clearview AI.

“We understand that Chief Mark Saunders has directed its use be halted immediately and that Toronto Police is now working with the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Crown Attorneys’ Office to review the technology and its appropriateness as an investigative tool. The Mayor supports this decision,” the spokesperson said in an email.

In response to the New York Times story, social media companies such as Facebook have sent Cleaview AI cease and desist letters. Twitter warned Clearview AI that scraping images from its platform was a violation of its terms of service. Clearview AI is also facing a lawsuit seeking class action status in Illinois that claims that the company violated the state’s privacy laws.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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