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.

High Risk: Marginalizing the Mentally Ill

A Justice of the BC Supreme Court refused to label    Allan Schoenborn as a “High Risk Offender”, meaning that designation has still not been successfully applied since it was introduced by the Harper Government.

Allan Schoenborn was found guilty, but not criminally responsible for the murders of his 3 young children, whom he believed had become victims of sexual abuse. Psychiatrists who assessed him unanimously agreed that he had been suffering from delusions and other symptoms consistent with a schizoaffective type disorder. As a result, it was determined that he did not bear legal culpability for his actions.

Although he was found to not be responsible for his actions, he was remanded to Colony Farm, a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, for an indefinite period of time (as is standard with all NCR offenders).

The purpose of the Not Criminally Responsible, High Risk Offender legislation is aimed at designating offenders found not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder as “high risk” if it can be proven that they pose a serious threat of inflicting grave physical or psychological harm to another person.

This legislation is strictly applicable to offenders found not criminally responsible – in essence, it is punitive legal recourse only available for individuals who have already been deemed as severely mentally ill.  

In her decision, Justice Martha Devlin determined that there was no reason to believe that Schoenborn met the criteria necessary for a High Risk designation. She noted that his current mental condition, along with the opinions of the experts overseeing his care, does not reflect him posing a serious threat to the public.

If the designation had been granted, it would have excluded Schoenborn from receiving escorted outings into the community, and would create a 3 year period between his review board hearings, as opposed to 1 year as is current procedure.

One of the biggest concerns we see in this legislation, is the effect it may have on offenders who should be entering a plea of not criminally responsible. The problem is that if an offender is likely to meet the criteria of a High Risk Offender once being deemed NCR, they may opt to take a determinate jail sentence simply because a High Risk Offender designation could seriously impede their ability to regain freedom from the psychiatric facility where they are being held. If an Accused person is told “plead guilty and you’ll get 10 years in jail” or given the option of “if you establish a NCR defence, there is a risk of a High Offender Designation, and I can’t tell you with any certainty whatsoever when, or if, you will ever be freed”, which option will likely seem more attractive?

Interestingly enough, Mr. Schoenborn’s high profile case was basically singled out by Stephen Harper when the “High Risk Designation for NCR Offenders” legislation was tabled in 2013. The decision by Justice Devlin demonstrates why impartiality and transparency are vital to the survival of judicial process: although the facts related to this case are heinous and disturbing, a path has been carved for Mr. Schoenborn, and Justice Devlin refused to hinder his progress. His NCR designation was not established in haste, and each step of his treatment since that time has been methodical and closely monitored. He requires intensive treatment and rehabilitation in order to, one day, have an opportunity at freedom.

Navigating through the criminal justice system as an Accused person is an intimidating experience. It is compounded when you are dealing with a mental illness. We are experienced in liaising with clients who suffer from severe mental health problems. We understand that compassion, respect and understanding are of fundamental importance when confronting with these issues. We are conveniently located in Richmond, B.C. only a few steps away from Brighouse Station on the Canada Line, which brings you from various locations in Metro Vancouver in 20 minutes. We service all areas of the lower mainland (including but not limited to Surrey, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver, and Abbotsford) the interior of B.C. (including but not limited to Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Salmon Arm), Northern B.C. (including but not limited to Prince George, Prince Rupert, and Quesnel) and in the Yukon Territory where we offer services in Whitehorse, Dawson City, and Old Crow. Contact our office today for your initial consultation.