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Forgot your keys? Scan your face, says Canadian firm amid privacy concerns

by Chris Arsenault | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 6 April 2020 14:53 GMT

Companies say that facial recognition in buildings increases safety but activists warn that residents do not realise the extent of lost privacy

By Chris Arsenault

TORONTO, April 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Plans for Canadian residents to use facial scans to enter their buildings have sparked criticism from privacy campaigners calling for changes to the country's aging data protection laws.

Canadian real estate firm 1Valet says facial scanning helps keep tenants safe by preventing unauthorized access to buildings and by keeping track of those who do enter.

But data rights groups warn the growing use of facial recognition technology by private companies is an invasion of privacy, and underscores the need to modernize Canada's legislation on the collection and use of personal information.

"Canada's privacy laws are 30 years old. They are not adequate," said Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, a campaign group based in Calgary. "These technologies are completely unregulated."

The rise of cloud computing and AI technologies have popularized the use of facial recognition globally, from tracking criminals to unlocking smartphones.

But as cameras appear at unlikely spots across the globe, activists raise fears about lost privacy and say society might be on the doorstep of a dystopia where Big Brother sees all.

In February Canadian authorities launched an investigation into New York-based Clearview AI to determine whether the firm's use of facial recognition technology complies with the country's privacy laws.

Several police forces in Ontario have acknowledged they used Clearview's services - which bills itself as a tool for law enforcement, scraping the internet for publicly available photos and using facial recognition to identify potential suspects.

For Brenda McPhail, privacy director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, "these kinds of 'smart technologies' are increasingly being embedded in building infrastructure," particularly in booming property markets like Toronto.

"Before we say 'shiny, high-tech, cool' we should ask if we are comfortable with what we are giving up ... privacy and our ability to be a face in the crowd," she said.

A spokesman for Ottawa-based 1Valet, Hugo Moreira, said facial recognition is only used in building common areas, not inside anyone's home.

He noted that the company's technology is the first in Canada to link independent systems such as surveillance cameras, lighting and door locks into a single platform which building managers can control from a smartphone-style panel.

"Property managers have an editable database of everyone in the building," Moreira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Anytime a door is opened, it gets logged ... It's easy to create comprehensive security investigations and then be able to share those with the authorities if it comes to a point when they need to get involved."


Currently, 1Valet's technology is operating in three buildings in Ottawa and the company has 12,000 housing units in the pipeline over the next three years, Moreira said.

The images of all tenants and visitors, which the company stores for at least six months, are protected from hackers by "bank-level encryption", he added.

Residents can choose not to use their facial scans to open the front door and can punch in a pin code instead, but cameras will still capture and store images of everyone who enters the properties, including guests, delivery personnel and others, Moreira noted.

That worries McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

A pizza delivery man or Uber driver coming to the building for work won't have any choice on whether their "facial fingerprints" are tracked and stored by the company, she said.

By allowing only tenants to opt out of the system "it privileges people who can afford to pay for the units over those who can't", McPhail added.

Brian Beamish, Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, a government-appointed watchdog, noted it also captures "the personal information of law-abiding individuals going about their everyday activities".

He warned against the possibility of a company routinely sharing the personal information collected by facial recognition technology with law enforcement without a warrant.

"This would be an erosion of the public's fundamental right to privacy," he said in emailed comments.

Companies that use facial recognition say it helps deter crime and increase safety.

Moreira of 1Valet said police have not yet asked to see footage from the company's facial scanning system, but it has voluntarily shared footage with them following a break in. The case is still under investigation.


A poll conducted last year for the Canadian government's Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that more than 90% of Canadians had concerns about the protection of their privacy.

Nearly half of the respondents felt that businesses in general do not respect their privacy rights, while 55% said they believe the national government does respect those rights.

Privacy advocates note that although Canada has two federal privacy laws covering issues related to how companies and governments must protect personal information, none directly address biometric data such as facial scans.

An online petition calling for reforms to the country's privacy laws so they cover facial recognition technology and for a moratorium on the government's use of the technology has garnered more than 11,000 signatures.

Beamish, Ontario's privacy commissioner, said his office has issued guidance on the use of video surveillance to public sector institutions, such as Toronto Community Housing, an affordable housing provider.

Their guidance noted that minor issues, like littering, shouldn't be used to justify video surveillance and institutions should first consider less intrusive methods for reducing crime, such as better lighting and foot patrols.

If surveillance cameras are monitoring a parking lot, for example, and the footage also indirectly captures information about neighboring properties, the cameras should avoid or black out those areas, according to the commissioner's guidance.

But the use of facial recognition systems by private companies is "effectively unregulated" unless a municipality passes a by-law addressing the practice, he added.

While watchdogs like the Privacy Commissioner can make recommendations to lawmakers or conduct investigations, they have little authority to compel or prohibit behavior, said McPhail from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

"When it comes to something like facial fingerprinting, which could render someone completely identifiable, we need to be having conversations about what we want as a society," McPhail said.

"As (the practice) becomes embedded, it will be harder to change."


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(Reporting by Chris Arsenault; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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