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Predictive Policing: Brave New World

In one of our previous posts, we discussed biometric technology and the role it plays in Canadian law enforcement. It is, however, only one of the “predictive” tools utilized by the police in relation to criminal investigations.


A new report by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto goes into alarming detail regarding growth of algorithmic policing methods, and how this technology compromises the privacy rights of Canadian citizens. The report is incredibly thorough and comprehensive, delving into how this controversial technique offends various sections of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Firstly, though, it is important that our readers understand what algorithmic policing is.

The overall success of any algorithm is the system’s ability to gather, store, and analyze data – with law enforcement’s methodology being no different.  A “location focused” algorithmic approach seeks to determine (predict) which areas are more likely to see criminal activity. The algorithmic system in these pursuits analyzes historical police data to identify geographical locations where crimes are, in theory, more likely to be committed. If this sounds familiar to you, then you’ve likely heard of, or accessed, the Vancouver Police Department’s GeoDash crime map – an online tool where you can navigate a map of the City of Vancouver by crime occurrence. You can choose from a variety of offences on the dropdown list, including homicide, break and enter, mischief, theft, and “offences against a person” which likely includes a variety of crimes such as sexual assault, assault causing bodily harm, and uttering threats. By looking at this map, you get an idea of which neighborhoods in Vancouver are most vulnerable to crime – except that it’s a little bit more sophisticated than that, and goes far beyond simply dropping a pin on the map. The public can see where the crime took place, but not who is alleged to have committed it.  The offender’s personal information is logged, in as much detail as possible, and becomes part of a larger system dedicated to predictive surveillance – i.e., it creates a profile of which individuals are more likely to commit a particular crime. This profile can be used to identify people who are “more likely to be involved in potential criminal activity, or to assess an identified person for their purported risk of engaging in criminal activity in the future”.

While this information is definitely concerning, there is another issue:  we have very little insight into the extent that this technology is being used. We know that the methods by which police gather information have historically discriminated against minority groups and those living in marginalized communities. This seems to guarantee that the VPD’s use of algorithmic investigative techniques relies on data that is often obtained through biased methods. We know that black and indigenous individuals are disproportionately represented in the correctional system, which can only mean that they are disproportionately represented in respect of these algorithms.

Although not everyone agrees that systemic racism exists within the VPD, the calls to address, unravel and mitigate the harm to marginalized groups continue to amplify. The idea that information collected under the apprehension of bias will not only remain on record, but will be used to further future investigations, is an indicator that Canadian law enforcement’s road to redemption will likely be a bumpy one.

Body Worn Cameras: What’s The Hold Up?

Over the last couple of months, there has been outcry from the public urging the use of BWC’s (Body Worn Cameras) for Canadian law enforcement. Although initially in response to the growing unrest relating to police brutality in the United States, there are echoes of abandoned intentions from Canadian officials dating back at least a few years. 


Back in 2015, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (“OPCC”) issued a publication regarding the use of BWC by police, in collaboration with privacy agencies in Alberta, New Brunswick and Quebec. The remaining Canadian law enforcement agencies from other provinces and territories acted “in consultation”.

For reference: according to the CBC, there were a total of 2 incidents involving the death of individuals at the hands of law enforcement in New Brunswick between 2012 and 2014, 12 incidents in Quebec, and 14 incidents in Alberta. Interestingly enough, British Columbia (on par with Quebec at 14 deaths) and Ontario (with the highest rate of police violence resulting in death in the country at 25 deaths between 2012 and 2014) were only acting in consultation.

The report hails the effectiveness of BWC to capture high quality images, videos, and audio recordings – so effective, in fact, that the OPCC had grave concerns regarding their ability to capture material that could jeopardize the privacy of innocent and uninvolved bystanders.

The report goes on to tout the value of BWC for evidentiary purposes, including analytics so sophisticated that the material obtained would likely be suitable for biometric comparison – aka, facial recognition

There is no arguing the fact that the use of BWC by police has implications for the privacy of citizens in their everyday lives – especially since once fitted, citizens would likely expect on-duty officers to have their devices on a continuous basis as opposed to intermittently.

Benefits of BWC include the ability to review interactions between police and the public, recording communications between the police and suspects in the course of an investigation, identifying potential witnesses, and of course recording interactions between police officers. Many criminal cases involve evidence obtained through the use of dash cams, which provide audio from inside a police cruiser and video from the perspective of the driver. The effectiveness of this technology loses value when the investigation takes place outside of a police vehicle, as the audio often fails to capture intelligible communications between police and a suspect, or between officers themselves. Although the dash cam is kept running, the audio portion is often useless when the interactions between police and a suspect take place outside the vehicle, and the windows of the police cruiser are closed, or if the police/suspect leave the immediate area where the audio is successfully captured.

The report indicates that while continuous recording would undoubtedly provide a greater level of accountability for the actions of police, the threat to personal privacy reigns supreme:

From an accountability perspective, continuous recording may be preferable because it captures an unedited recording of an officer’s actions and the officer cannot be accused of manipulating recordings for his or her own benefit. However, from a privacy perspective, collecting less or no personal information is always the preferred option”

In 2014, the Edmonton Police concluded a pilot project regarding the use of BWC by its officers. The conclusion?:

“The cameras had no effect on police use-of-force incidents and said there was no statistical difference in resolving police complaints”

According to an analysis done by CBC, there were a total of four deaths between 2012 and 2014 relating to officers of the Edmonton Police Service. By comparison, there were 9 deaths in the same period relating to officers of the Toronto Police Service. The results of the Pilot Project may have seen different results in a different jurisdiction.

The Edmonton Police explained that in addition to being ineffective to expose cases of police misconduct, the related expenses were simply unrealistic. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not the cost of the devices themselves, but the expense to store and manage all of the material collected: somewhere between 6 and 15 million dollars over five years, which also includes hiring personnel qualified for the job. 

Finding the balance between accountability, transparency and oversight of police against the protection of privacy for Canadian citizens is a legitimate and profound task – one that cannot be taken lightly. As the calls for BWC in Canadian law enforcement grow louder, and as Canadians revisit the reality of what it is to be privileged in this country, we can only hope that the values of dignity and equality are recognized as being more valuable than the cost of the equipment that very well could save lives.

Systemic Racism, eh?

 “Systemic racism is so rampant in the United States, I’m from Canada so I can’t even imagine what that must be like!”
“Police brutality in the US makes me proud to be Canadian”

The two statements above reflect a dangerous and widespread misconception held by many Canadians as they observe growing unrest in the United States:

“Deaths of minorities at the hands of law enforcement just isn’t an issue here”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Systemic racism exists in institutions across Canada – and an analysis of police brutality against minorities performed by CBC reveals some startling data.

Between 2000 and 2017, CBC was identified 461 fatal encounters between law enforcement and civilians. The RCMP– Canada’s largest and only federal police force – is responsible for the highest number of incidents at 118 casualties, followed by the Toronto Police Service at 52, and the Service de police de la Ville de Montreal at 32. The data demonstrates that these occurrences continue to rise steadily across the country.

When looking at the study, it is obvious that Caucasian individuals represent the largest number of victims per ethnic group, composing roughly 43% of all casualties identified. They also represent nearly 80% of Canada’s total population.

Indigenous victims represent roughly 16% of all casualties identified, but account for less than 5% of Canada’s total population.

Black victims represent roughly 10% of all casualties identified, but account for less than 3% of Canada’s total population.

22% of the victims were unable to be identified by ethnicity.

These facts are alarming and highlight a trend of violence by law enforcement against identifiable minorities. Aggravating circumstances further, it is estimated that mental health and substance abuse issues afflicted approximately 70% of the 461 victims.

The data further reveals that the majority of these occurred in urban areas with diverse cultural communities – not within areas densely populated by minorities. What this means is that of the percentage of the 461 fatalities that involve people of color is grossly disproportionate to the overall population of the areas affected.

Gun related deaths accounted for over 71% of the 461 fatalities, use of restraint at just shy of 16%, physical force at 1.3%, use of an intermediate weapon (a tool not designed to cause death with conventional use, such as a baton) at 1.1%, and “other” accounting for 10.1% of deaths.

Perhaps most shocking of all is that these statistics have not been compiled and presented by the organizations with the most reliable sources of information – the law enforcement agencies themselves.

The analysis conducted by CBC provides a glimpse into the systemic racism that is alive and well within law enforcement agencies across the country, but it hardly tells the entire story.

The data relates only to fatalities – it does not represent the wrongful arrests and prosecutions of minorities in Canada, the disproportionate sentences that are imposed, or the loss of dignity and liberty. 

It does not represent the interactions that don’t result in an arrest or charges, nor does it represent the victims of racism and bias who will never have the opportunity to tell their stories.  

Intimate Partner Violence: Epidemic of a Pandemic

It goes without saying that the judicial system has been hit hard by COVID-19. This isn’t wildly surprising – there was no solid emergency response strategy in place for a situation like this, and as a result, a significant amount of time and resources have been expended to create a sense of control amongst the chaos.


It was acknowledged early on that certain individuals in the justice system would be disproportionately effected – accused persons in custody awaiting trial or sentencing, residents of remote communities that operate under a court circuit, and, of course, the victims in cases where there is uncertainty of if or when the case proceeds at all.

Since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in response to COVID-19, law enforcement has tried to adapt where required. One of the most profound changes relates to the processing of newly accused individuals – and it may provide context into why intimate partner violence has surged during the pandemic. Between April 6 and May 6, 2020, 8 tragic incidents of domestic violence against women across Canada resulted in fatalities. There is, of course, no doubt about the fact that violence in relationships occurred before COVID-19, and will continue long after the pandemic is declared over – but there are aspects to a surge in intimate partner violence that are directly linked to the virus and to the policies that have been implemented when trying to process, manage, and supervise offenders.

Hundreds of accused persons awaiting trial in custody have been released, with chargeable offences ranging from assault, fraud, drug trafficking and beyond. Again, not surprising – as we’ve discussed previously on the blog, the correctional system serves as the perfect breeding ground for the virus, and it would be beyond cruel and unusual to take no action at all to protect those that are considered to be among the most vulnerable.

It’s the way that law enforcement has chosen to operate on a “catch and release” scheme in cases that would, under normal circumstances, require a bail hearing – and probably a highly contested one at that – that has likely contributed to domestic violence rates during COVID-19. Due to concerns about the nature of the virus and its ability to spread quickly, bail hearings have occurred less frequently, even with video-conferencing and telephone conferencing put into effect to streamline the process and protect the health of all parties involved. Instead of a bail hearing, an accused is more likely to be released on an Undertaking. The Undertaking may require that the accused check in with a bail supervisor weekly – something that is generally done on an in-person basis, where the most value lies in a face-to-face meeting – by telephone instead.

Aside from that, the “stay at home” order has, unintentionally, resulted in many victims of violence becoming prisoners in their homes. Public services like shelters and safe houses are stretched beyond capacity, and for some (especially people with underlying health conditions and people with children) entering into such an environment during a virus pandemic might seem even less tolerable than continuing to cohabitate with their abuser.

As with the other aspects of our lives – returning to work and school, chatting with our neighbors, planning vacations – the judicial system will, in one way or another, return to full operational capacity. But for those who have suffered the effects of intimate partner violence during the pandemic, there may be no return to the way things once were.

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.