Privacy commissioners take position on using facial recognition technology

March 11, 2021

Investigative findings 

In a joint investigation report, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, together with the commissioners of BC, Alberta, and Quebec concluded that Clearview AI violated Canadians’ privacy rights under federal and provincial privacy laws by scraping billons of images of people available online to be continually used in what amounted to a virtual “police lineup.” They found Clearview collected highly sensitive information without the knowledge or consent of individuals, and did so for an inappropriate purpose. 

Several key considerations informed the commissioners’ views.

Online data is protected

Heavy reliance on social media, and on the readily available personal information found there, adds another wrinkle to this story. 

Federal and provincial privacy laws have an exception to the consent requirement for personal information that is “publicly available.” While Clearview argued that the images they scraped were “publicly available” and exempt from the consent requirement, it used this information for a purpose unrelated to the purposes for which the information had originally been posted, and therefore could not rely on these exemptions. 

In short, the fact that personal information is available online does not mean it can be used by anyone for any purpose he or she chooses, or that consent is not necessary. Personal information available online is still protected by privacy laws unless the specific requirements of the “publicly available” exception apply.

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