Clearview AI Toronto

Toronto police in trouble for using controversial facial recognition technology

An artificial intelligence system believed to be so powerful and invasive that even Facebook is trying to stop it is now making headlines in Canada, and not in a good way.

Facial recognition software from Clearview AI — a company that the New York Times believes might literally "end privacy as we know it" with its product — has been in use by the Toronto Police Service since October of 2019.

TPS spokesperson Meaghan Gray confirmed the news by email to CBC on Thursday, writing that officers in Toronto had indeed been "informally testing this new and evolving technology" prior to February 5, when Chief Mark Saunders found out and ordered them to stop.

TPS had previously denied using the tool, which allows law enforcement authorities to identify people in real time based on a database of more than three billion images scraped from social media platforms.

Facebok, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube are among the tech giants that have sent cease and desist letters to Clearview AI, essentially asking the company to stop "collecting faces" from their networks.

Clearview maintains that it has a First Amendment right to public data under the U.S. Constitution, though regulators in other parts of the world are watching closely. The European Union even went so far as to (momentarily) consider banning facial recognition technology altogether in light of the situation.

Whatever the case, members of the public cannot access Clearview AI software — only law enforcement agencies have that right so far, and, as the New York Times reported in its explosive piece last month, more than 600 police departments have so far opted to use it.

Clearview's first customer, the Indiana State Police, are said to have been able to solve a case within just 20 minutes using the company's artificial intelligence technology.

Canadian Civil Liberties Association's Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project director Brenda McPhail told The Star in a piece published Thursday that she found the use of Clearview AI by Toronto Police "a remarkable violation of public trust."

"Clearview AI collects images of people without consent, in violation of the terms of service of the platforms people trust to protect their information — arguably, illegally," she said. "No police force in Canada should be using technology whose lawfulness is open to question."

Toronto Police have ceased using Clearview AI for now, but they haven't ruled it out for the future.

The police department has reportedly asked Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, as well as the Crown Attorney's Office, "to work with the service to review whether Clearview AI is an appropriate investigative tool."

"Until a fulsome review of the product is completed," said Gray, "it will not be used by the Toronto Police Service."

Lead photo by

David Williams


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