Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia Michael McEvoy during a news conference in Vancouver, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia Michael McEvoy during a news conference in Vancouver, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada crawling toward AI regulatory regime, but experts say reform is urgent

Clearview AI said in July it will no longer provide facial recognition services in Canada

On Thursday, privacy watchdogs revealed that five million images of shoppers’ faces were collected without their consent at a dozen of Canada’s most popular malls.

Real estate company Cadillac Fairview embedded cameras equipped with facial-recognition technology, which draws on machine-learning algorithms, in digital information kiosks to discern shoppers’ ages and genders, according to an investigation by the federal, Alberta and B.C. privacy commissioners.

But the commissioners had no authority to levy fines against the firm, or any companies that violate Canadians’ personal information, an “incredible shortcoming of Canadian law that should really change,” B.C. information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy said in an email.

The revelation shines a light on the legal void around algorithmic technology. Despite its status as an artificial-intelligence hub, Canada has yet to develop a regulatory regime to deal with problems of privacy, discrimination and accountability to which AI systems are prone, prompting renewed calls for regulation from experts and businesses.

“We are now being required to expect systematic monitoring and surveillance in the way that we walk down the road, drive in our cars, chat with our friends online in small social-media bubbles. And it changes the way that public life occurs, to subject that free activity to systematic monitoring,” said Kate Robertson, a Toronto-based criminal and constitutional lawyer.

At least 10 Canadian police agencies, including the RCMP and Calgary and Toronto police services, have used Clearview AI, a facial-recognition company that scraped images from the Internet for use in law enforcement investigations across the continent, according to a report co-written by Robertson.

Other Ontario police forces also may be “unlawfully intercepting” private conversations in online chat rooms via “algorithmic social-media surveillance technology,” according to the September report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and International Human Rights Program.

Clearview AI said in July it will no longer provide facial recognition services in Canada, but many companies offer similar services.

“We have seen the lack of clear limits and focused regulation leaving an overly broad level of discretion in both the public and police sectors that is a call to action for governments across the country,” Robertson said in a phone interview.

Canada needs to roll out concrete rules that balance privacy and innovation, said Carolina Bessega, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Montreal startup Stradigi AI.

Public trust in artificial intelligence becomes increasingly crucial as machine-learning companies move from the conceptual to the commercial stage, she said. “And the best way to trust AI is to have clear regulations.”

The regulatory vacuum also discourages businesses from deploying AI, holding back innovation and efficiency — particularly in hospitals and clinics, where the implications can be life or death.

“Right now it’s like a grey area, and everybody’s afraid making the decision of, ‘OK, let’s use artificial intelligence to improve diagnosis, or let’s use artificial intelligence to help recommend a treatment for a patient,’” Bessega said.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains tells The Canadian Press that an update to 20-year-old privacy legislation is due “in the coming weeks” to address gaps in personal-data protection, but refused to nail down a timeline.

The would-be law should “empower Canadians to have better accountability and to promote responsible innovation,” he said.

Bains pointed to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation from 2018 as a model that hands citizens more control over their privacy and digital information through “clear enforcement mechanisms,” he said.

The absence of an AI legal framework has implications for Canadians in areas ranging from law enforcement to immigration.

So-called predictive policing — automated decision-making based on data that predicts where a crime will occur or who will commit it — has had a disproportionate impact on racialized communities, said Robertson of Citizen Lab.

Examples include a now-abandoned Chicago police initiative where the majority of people on a list of potential perpetrators were Black men who had no arrests or shooting incidents to their names, as well as a scuttled Los Angeles police strategy that saw officers targeting possible crime hot spots based on information gleaned from utility bills, foreclosure records and social-service files.

Since 2015, police departments in Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon and London, Ont. have implemented or piloted predictive policing.

The federal immigration and refugee system also relies on algorithm-driven decisions to help determine factors such as whether a marriage is genuine or if someone should be designated as a “risk,” according to another Citizen Lab study, which found the practice threatens to violate human-rights law.

AI testing and deployment in Canada’s military prompted Canadian deep-learning pioneers Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio to warn about the dangers of robotic weapons and outsourcing lethal decisions to machines, and to call for an international agreement on their deployment.

The federal government launched the Advisory Council on Artificial Intelligence in May 2019, and Canada was among the first states to develop an official AI research plan, unveiling a $125-million strategy in 2017. But the focus of both is largely scientific and commercial.

The advisory council, which includes a working group that aims to “foster trust” in the technology, has yet to produce a public report.

In June, Canada, France and 13 other countries launched an international AI partnership to guide policy development with an eye to human rights, with its working group on responsible AI co-chaired by Bengio (who also co-chairs the advisory council). But drafting laws is beyond its mandate.

“Canada’s approach to AI appears to be focused on funding research as opposed to developing regulations and governance structures,” according to a U.S. Library of Congress report from January 2019.

Until legislation arrives in Parliament, experts say the observation still holds true.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Technology

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A sign encouraging COVID-19 safety steps, with the Bayside rugby clubhouse – located adjacent to Semiahmoo Secondary and the South Surrey track – in background; Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo: Tracy Holmes)
Surrey sees 2,400 new COVID-19 cases in February

This is the lowest monthly increase since last fall

A CVS pharmacist prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at Village Green Retirement Campus in Federal Way on Jan. 26. (Photo: Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
COVID-19 vaccination bookings start Monday for some Surrey seniors

First up is seniors aged 90-plus, and Indigenous seniors, elders aged 65-plus

Federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole speaks during a virtual South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce town hall on Saturday, March 6, 2021.
O’Toole says South Surrey, White Rock face ‘acute’ challenges during pandemic

Federal Conservative leader speaks at local chamber town hall

Labour Minister Harry Bains addressing Surrey Board of Trade digital meeting Friday. (Screen shot)
Labour Minister says Surrey businesses’ resilience through pandemic ‘impressive’

‘Surrey’s effort in bending the curve has been among the best,’ Harry Bains says

Volunteers from Semiahmoo Secondary joined with members of the Lower Mainland Green Team and the White Rock and South Surrey Naturalists Wednesday to remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park. (Contributed photo)
Students, volunteers remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park

Day-long project a collaboration between city, Lower Mainland Green Team

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

The family of injured Willoughby resident Ronald Gerald Jesso is hoping someone saw something that will help solve the mystery of how he came to be so badly hurt on the morning of Feb. 22. Jesso is still in hospital. (Jesso family/Special to Langley Advance Times)
An appeal to help solve the mystery of an injured Langley man

Family of Ronald Gerald Jesso asks witnesses to come forward

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
VIDEO: One man shot dead on Vancouver Island in ‘targeted incident’

Highway 14 reopens following multi-hour closure for investigation

B.C. RCMP Lower Mainland District officer, Asst. Commissioner Stephen Thatcher presents RCMP blankets to (from left) Chief James Hobart, Chief Maureen Chapman, Chief Derek Epp and Chief Mark Point. (RCMP)
Historic agreement significantly expands Indigenous role in Lower Mainland policing

Community Safety Agreement builds relationship of ‘trust, communication and prevention,’ says Chief

Most Read