The long-simmering debate over facial recognition technology is taking on new urgency during the pandemic, as companies rush to pitch face-scanning systems to track the movements of Covid-19 patients. That's playing out in California, where state legislators on Tuesday will debate legislation that would regulate the use of the technology. Its most controversial element: It would permit companies and public agencies to feed people's facial data into a recognition system without their consent if there is probable cause to believe they've engaged in criminal activity. The bill isn't specifically meant for the coronavirus response, but if enacted, could shape the way that people with Covid-19 and their contacts are tracked and traced in the coming months. The legislation has won the support of Microsoft, but it has garnered opposition from more than 40 civil rights and privacy groups and from 18 public health scholars.
The facial recognition app Clearview AI is not welcome in Canada and the company that developed it should delete Canadians' faces from its database, the country's privacy commissioner said on Wednesday. "What Clearview does is mass surveillance, and it is illegal," Commissioner Daniel Therrien said at a news conference. He forcefully denounced the company as putting all of society "continually in a police lineup." Though the Canadian government does not have legal authority to enforce photo removal, the position -- the strongest one an individual country has taken against the company -- was clear: "This is completely unacceptable." Clearview scraped more than three billion photos from social media networks and other public websites in order to build a facial recognition app that is now used by over 2,400 U.S. law enforcement agencies, according to the company.
Clearview AI will no longer sell its facial recognition software in Canada, according to government privacy officials investigating the company. The end of Clearview AI operations in Canada will also mean the end of the company's contract with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, according to an announcement released today by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Canadian privacy officials started investigating Clearview AI in February following media reports about the company's practice of scraping billions of images from social media and the web without consent from the people in photos in order to create its facial recognition system. Critics say Clearview's approach could mean the end of privacy. Government officials from Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta provinces continue to investigate Clearview AI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police use of its facial recognition software despite Clearview's exit.
This week, the Los Angeles Police Department told BuzzFeed News that it would stop using Clearview AI, the company that scraped billions of images from the internet, including social media sites, to form a massive searchable database of faces and identities. Reading that story, it's important to keep in mind that despite the headline, L.A. law enforcement is far from giving up facial recognition technology. The police department will still use its existing facial recognition database with more than eight million booking photos run by facial recognition contractor DataWorks Plus. DataWorks Plus sells photo management software that connects to third-party facial recognition algorithms, like those from NEC and Rank One. Last year, OneZero reported that DataWorks Plus was working on bridging these facial recognition databases across California in a service called the California Facial Recognition Interconnect.
Four Democratic senators and House representatives have called on several government departments to stop using Clearview AI's facial recognition system. The Government Accountability Office said in August that the Departments of Justice, Defense, Homeland Security and the Interior were all using the contentious technology for "domestic law enforcement." Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Pressley urged the agencies to refrain from using Clearview's products and other facial recognition tools. "Clearview AI's technology could eliminate public anonymity in the United States," the lawmakers wrote to the agencies in their letters, which were obtained by The Verge. They said that, combined with the facial recognition system, the database of billions of photos Clearview scraped from social media platforms "is capable of fundamentally dismantling Americans' expectation that they can move, assemble or simply appear in public without being identified."