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

The 29-year-old man pleaded guilty to one count of dangerous driving at Grand Forks Provincial Court Tuesday, Nov. 17. File photo
Grand Forks man gets 3-months curfew for role in Highway 3 chase

Guilty man thanked Judge Robert Brown, said he is committed to recovering from addiction

Two men got into a fight over a Grand Forks’ flower display last summer. One of the men resolved an assault charge by entering into a peace bond at Provincial Court Tuesday, Nov. 17. File photo
Grand Forks man takes peace bond after flower fisticuffs

Harsh words over a downtown flower display led to violent confrontation, said Crown attorney

A man wears a mask while walking down Canyon Street in Creston on Nov. 13. Photo: Aaron Hemens
Creston resident living with COVID-19 reflects on experience

Contracting and living with the virus, she said, has led to a “major reset” in her life

The man was charged with multiple counts of impersonation with intent to avoid arrest. File photo
Grand Forks man pleads guilty to impersonating brother in city traffic stops

The man told a city court he and his brother have since reconciled

The Crown said the man became upset after he saw a couple having sex in public view last July. File photo
Midway man takes peace bond after hitting man for having sex on beach

The accused appeared at the Grand Forks Courthouse Tuesday, Nov. 17

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-19: What do rising positivity rates mean for B.C.? It’s not entirely clear

Coronavirus cases are on the rise but the province has not unveiled clear thresholds for further measures

Most Read