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

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

Dr. Paul Stent is the first physician in Fort St. James to have received the vaccine, Jan. 22. (Northern Health photo)
Fort St. James receives shipment of COVID-19 vaccine

First vaccination clinics were held Jan. 22.

The COVID-19 outbreak at the two Coastal GasLink workforce lodges has officially been declared over. (Lakes District News file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Coastal GasLink worksites declared over

In total, 56 cases were associated with the outbreak in the Burns Lake and Nechako LHAs

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

The fine for changing lanes or merging over a solid line costs drivers $109 and two penalty points in B.C. (Screenshot via Google Street View)
B.C. drivers caught crossing, merging over solid white lines face hefty fine

Ticket for $109, two penalty points issued under Motor Vehicle Act for crossing solid lines

A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Yukon’s Minister of Community Services, John Streiker, says he’s outraged that a couple from outside the territory travelled to a remote community this week and received doses of COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-POOL
Couple charged after travelling to Yukon to get COVID-19 vaccine

The maximum fine under the emergency measures act is $500, and up to six months in jail

Metis Nation of B.C. President Clara Morin Dal Col poses in this undated handout photo. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Metis Nation of B.C. *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Metis Nation of B.C. suspends president, citing ‘breach’ of policies, procedures

Vice-president Lissa Smith is stepping in to fill the position on an acting basis

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

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Payette shouldn’t get same benefits as other ex-governors general: O’Toole

Former governors general are entitled to a pension and also get a regular income paid to them for the rest of their lives

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Most Read