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Abuse of facial recognition job one for ethics committee after Clearview AI concerns: Charlie Angus

Shruti Shekar
Telecom & Tech Reporter
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A federal government committee examining artificial intelligence (AI) will now “be within the frame of the abuse and use of facial recognition,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said.

Angus, a member of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI), said in a phone interview that towards the end of the last parliamentary session the committee had the aim of studying AI but never managed to address all the implications of facial recognition

The ETHI committee has yet to pick its first topic to study and investigate, but Angus said that while a number of ideas have been brought forward, “this definitely received a very strong mandate.”

“We want to pace ourselves in this, we want to make sure we get the proper witness list but I think this looks like job one for our committee,” he said. 

In January, The New York Times reported that Clearview AI is working with hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the U.S., including the F.B.I.

The company allows users to take a picture of a person, and if the photo matches a face in its three billion image database, it can potentially provide information like names, addresses, and other details. 

The three billion photos are harvested from Facebook, Venmo, Youtube, and other sites. 

Since then, Facebook, Twitter, Venmo, and YouTube have filed cease-and-desist letters to Clearview AI to stop harvesting users’ images.

Angus said that the ETHI committee will begin the study “in the next few weeks,” adding that he’s gotten support from all parties. 

“I received a lot of support from the other parties on this... it will probably begin with an initial briefing by the Privacy Commissioner,” he said, adding that beginning the investigation will take some time because of a new committee that will need to be “brought up to speed.”

In February, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien launched an investigation into the use of the facial recognition app Clearview AI, after the Toronto Police Service and Halton Regional Police revealed they each used the controversial app to identify individuals in its investigations. 

Angus noted that the committee has yet to come up with a full list of witnesses but noted that questions they intend to ask include “do we need an initial ban until we lay down ground rules? Do we have judicial oversight? How do we ensure that facial recognition technology is not being used to abuse the rights of citizens?”

He noted that Therrien’s recommendations were valid but that the next step would be to bring him to the committee and further question him. 

Study can’t result in “fluff,” there should be “focus on action”: Ann Cavoukian

Ann Cavoukian, former information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, said in an interview that she was “delighted” that the ETHI committee was going to study facial recognition, but cautioned that the study and investigation shouldn’t be “fluff.”

“In the European Union, they put out a paper last week about [AI] and the things that had to be done. But essentially, it had no substance and it said if there was a significant risk posed by AI then we should investigate. I mean, theoretically, everything could be at risk,” Cavoukian said. 

“I would urge people here in Canada, we have to dig deep into this and get some really solid expertise from the AI community.”

Former ETHI member and current Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told Yahoo Finance Canada in a previous interview that the government has an algorithmic impact assessment framework established, but it has not been implemented yet. Until it is, he said “[police] agencies shouldn’t be employing AI where there are obvious [negative] effects on civil liberties.”

But Cavoukian had not even heard of the framework and said that the government has to “walk the talk.”

“I’m sure part of it is that they just don’t know what to do, you can have all the rules in place, but they have to be meaningful and if you don’t apply some concrete measures as to how those rules are implemented, they mean nothing,” she said. 

Cavoukian said that a study, like what the ETHI committee is planning to do, is good, but the end result is that it isn’t left at just a study.

“You examine it, you make the recommendations, but then you focus on action. Action is always the missing piece on all of this,” she said. You can have all the studies in the world and great recommendations, they mean nothing if they’re not implemented.”

With files from Associated Press