Biometrics Hazard: How Facial Recognition Technology is used by Canadian Law Enforcement

“Not only is this a concern with the possibility of misidentifying someone and leading to wrongful convictions, it can also be very damaging to our society by being abused by law enforcement for things like constant surveillance of the public”

– Nicole Martin, Forbes contributor

Star Trek. Back to the Future. District 9. I, Robot. These are only a few examples of films that have relied on biometrics – more commonly referred to as Facial Recognition – as a theme for entertainment. All are fiction based and while you may have thought of biometrics as a tool used by elusive government agencies like the FBI and CIA, that isn’t the case at all. Advancements in biometric technology have been seized upon by various law enforcement and government agencies across Canada – creating serious concerns from privacy and civil liberty advocates, and of course, criminal defence counsel.

The Calgary Police Service began using Facial Recognition technology in 2014. The system they use, known as NeoFace Reveal, works by analyzing an uploaded image and translating it into a mathematical pattern known as an algorithm. The image is then logged in a database and used for comparison against other uploaded images.

The Toronto Police Service hopped on board too. They reported uploading 800,000 images into their Repository for Integrated Criminalistic Imaging, or RICI by 2018. Their use of biometrics began with a trial in 2014, and in 2018, the Service purchased a system at a cost of about $450,000. Between March and December of 2018, the Toronto Police Service ran 1,516 searches, with about 910 of those searches (or 60%) resulting in a potential match. Of those potential matches, approximately 728 people were identified (about 80%). There were no statistics provided in relation to ethnicity, age, or gender, however, research has raised concerns about disproportionate effects of biometrics as it relates to people of color.

Manitoba Police do not currently use biometric technology as an investigative tool, although the idea was floated around in 2019 after the commission of a report concerning growing crime rates in Winnipeg’s downtown core. The Provincial government in Manitoba went so far as to suggest that this technology could be used to identify violent behavior – which sounds a lot like active surveillance, an unethical use of biometrics, which demonstrates one of the most profound concerns surrounding use of this technology. And while it is only a matter of time until the Manitoba Police do use this technology, many retailers in the province are already using it.

At home here in British Columbia, the Vancouver Police Department denies using Facial Recognition technology as a mechanism to investigate crime – in fact, back in 2011, they turned down ICBC’s offer to assist in identifying suspects involved in the Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots with the aid of their software. The office of the BC Privacy Commissioner confirmed that any use of ICBC’s facial recognition data by the VPD would amount to a breach of privacy for its customers.The office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has been keeping track since at least 2013 yet, there is little regulation of the use of biometrics in public and private sectors. 

The same cannot be said for the RCMP in British Columbia, who, as recently as two weeks ago refused to confirm or deny use of biometrics as an investigative tool, but questions have been raised as to whether or not the RCMP is a client of Clearview AI, a facial recognition startup pioneered by US citizen Hoan Ton-That. Clearview’s work has not gone unnoticed – Facebook and Twitter have issued cease and desist letters, making it very clear that they do not support Clearview’s objectives. Google issued a cease and desist letter as well – however, their position on biometrics is fuzzy – especially since they are trying to make advancements in this area as well. So far, though, they have come under fire for their tactics and the results that have been generated. 

The Canadian Government’s position on the use of biometrics is established on their website. When you submit your biometric information at Service Canada (for example), your information isn’t actually stored there, rather, it is sent to the Canadian Immigration Biometric Identification System, where it will remain for a period of 10 years. Further, your biometrics information will be shared with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. And yes – you can refuse to provide this information – but it will likely put a kink in your travel plans.


One important factor to consider about all of these agencies and their use of biometric technology is that this tool was never intended for use as active surveillance, or a method to intervene in incidents of crime in real-time. Whether it is a violent assault, sexual assault, theft under or over $5,000, murder or kidnapping, biometrics is an “after the fact” investigative mechanism. If used ethically and within parameters that preserve the privacy of all citizens 100% of the time, perhaps there would be no need for alarm – but that is incredibly unlikely. As more agencies begin to use this technology, the lack of regulatory oversight is bound to create an enormous pervasion of your privacy – and you may never know about it.

How Fast Should the Wheels of Justice Spin?

In my last post, I briefly touched upon what was unfolding in the U.K. and the rioting that was spreading from London to many more of that country’s major cities. The violence and looting that was broadcast to the world was shocking to many. There were hundreds of reported arsons, thefts, burglaries, assaults, and even murders. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and many other politicians made strong statements to the media on how order will be restored and those found to be responsible for these crimes will feel the full effect of the law. We heard similar cries from British Columbia’s politicians when Vancouver experienced its riot 2-months ago. However, what I found intriguing was the speed at which justice has been delivered in the UK compared to what was have seen in Vancouver.

In London, as the riot raged out in the streets, the courthouses remained open throughout the night to deal with those individuals charged with riot-related offences.There were bail hearings held and guilty pleas entered. And the sentences were heavy. However, In Vancouver, we have yet to have a single person charged with a riot-related criminal offence. This is quite perplexing to many when we have heard of people turning themselves in to the Vancouver Police admitting to their criminal conduct in the riot. Why would it take so long for rioters in Vancouver to be charged, especially when many have admitted their guilt to the police?

There is one significant difference between the manner in which charges are laid in Canada versus the U.K. that may explain the speed of justice delivered in each country. In Canada, police investigate a crime then make their recommendation of charges to Crown counsel, who then have to decide whether to approve the charges based on the evidence the police have gathered. In the U.K., police themselves lay the charges. It appears to be a much quicker, or streamlined process.

However, there is growing debate as to which country’s system is better, or more efficient. The general public in both countries wants to see rioters face swift and significant repercussions. In Vancouver, the passage of time with no charges laid has  left the public wondering if our justice system is broken altogether. The Vancouver Police have said that they are still sifting through mountains of photos and video to ensure they have a careful and complete body of evidence for those whom are eventually charged. Vancouver citizens hear of how rioters have been dealt with in the U.K. and they are wondering why it is so remarkably different. But in the U.K., the Law Society has now warned judges to “not hand down rushed justice“.

Which system do you think is better: one that is swift and immediate or one that is more cautious and takes more time?

I think the swifter U.K. version provides greater immediate deterrence to the public but I also think that B.C.’s slower, more cautious system provides the justice system with a ‘sober second thought’ on how to properly sentence those before the courts. There are pro’s and con’s to each. I hope both countries can learn from one another and make improvements to each of their justice systems.