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

City of Red Deer has nearly doubled its active COVID-19 case count since Feb. 10 and has 75.6 per cent of the Central zone’s active cases. (File photo)
Another new high: Red Deer hits 574 active COVID-19 cases

Province reports 13 new COVID-19 deaths, 430 new cases

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported 11 additional deaths over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta
Red Deer active COVID-19 cases drop slightly

Province reports 267 additional COVID-19 cases, 11 new deaths

On Monday, Feb. 22, Island Health listed Glacier View Secondary on 241 Beacher Drive in Courtenay as having a COVID-19 exposure Feb. 17 and 18. Black Press file photo
Red Deer sets new COVID-19 case record

There are now 565 active cases in Red Deer

County
County of Paintearth meeting highlights

The second round of the County of Paintearth’s Land Use Bylaw public engagement survey is now complete

Across the province, there are 2,738 active cases of COVID-19, with 18,417 recovered cases. There have been 288 deaths from the virus in Alberta since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
Red Deer has 564 of central zone’s 766 active COVID-19 cases

Government of Alberta identifies 328 new COVID-19 cases Sunday

Bookings for COVID-19 vaccines for people age 75 or older start Wednesday. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Updated: Delays for seniors booking for vaccine appointments

By 9:20 a.m. Wednesday, 4,500 seniors had booked their appointments

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP will not trigger election as long as pandemic continues: Singh

‘“We will vote to keep the government going’

Mike Ammeter (Photo by Rebecca Hadfield)
Sylvan Lake man elected chair of Canadian Canola Growers Association

Mike Ammeter is a local farmer located near the Town of Sylvan Lake

Students and staff at Gateway Christian School wore pink Wednesday in support of Pink Shirt Day, a worldwide anti-bullying initiative that was started in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Public Schools)
Students, central Alberta community celebrate Pink Shirt Day

Mayor of Sylvan Lake Sean McIntyre supports anti-bullying cause

Minister Rick Wilson poses with Katie at the Boys and Girls Club of Wetaskiwin, both wearing her Pink Shirt Day design. Facebook/ Boys and Girls Club of Wetaskiwin.
Wetaskiwin Boys and Girls club Pink Shirt day design focuses on kindness

Katie with the Boys and Girls Club of Wetaskiwin created this year’s Pink Shirt Day design.

Black Press File Photo
Valentine’s Day shooting in Maskwacis leaves one male in hospital, one male in custody

19-year-old Francis Edward Nepoose from Maskwacis has been charged with attempted murder.

Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Anne Kirker is expected to sentence Satnam Singh Sandhu on Friday. Red Deer Advocate file photo
Updated: Sylvan Lake man pleads guilty to manslaughter for strangling wife in 2019

Kulvinder Sandhu was strangled and died in hospital several days later

Sentencing delayed in the stabbing death of Samantha Sharpe, of Sunchild First Nation. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Central Alberta man not criminally responsible for killing his father in 2020: judge

Psychiatrist testified Nicholas Johnson was psychotic when he killed his father

Most Read