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Privacy commissioner cites challenges with artificial intelligence

Michael McEvoy spoke at the recent privacy and security conference at TRU
Michael McEvoy is B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner.

B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner says artificial intelligence will present challenges to his office as the technology continues to emerge.

Michael McEvoy, who is serving his sixth and final year as the province's information and privacy commissioner, spoke at Thompson Rivers University's privacy and security conference, which took place on Jan. 26.

McEvoy said his office has tackled these issues in the past. Its most recent intervention was with an American company called Clearview AI.

The commissioner and his office worked with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and other privacy commissioners from Alberta and Quebec in its investigation of the company.

McEvoy said Clearview AI was found to be operating contrary to Canadian laws and, in December 2021, the company was ordered to delete facial imagery it had collected and to stop offering its facial recognition services.

Clearview AI had built up a massive database of faces and was selling that information to law enforcement, including the RCMP.

That case is still before the courts, but some others like it have already been resolved.

McEvoy pointed to the 2011 Stanley Cup riots where, after the Vancouver Canucks’ failed Stanley Cup run, cars were overturned in the streets of Vancouver and businesses were looted. In the aftermath, police and others set out to identify those seen in photos and videos.

"ICBC had volunteered to turn over its facial recognition software to law enforcement to identify some of the alleged vandals. That drew the attention of a lot of people," McEvoy said.

Ultimately, police were not interested in using the data.

In a more recent intervention, McEvoy's office ordered the destruction of about five-million images collected by equipment in mall kiosks in the Lower Mainland.

McEvoy said Cadillac Fairview, owner of the Pacific Centre Mall in downtown Vancouver and other major shopping centres, had been covertly collecting images of mall users to collect information on age, gender and people's movement.

The data was deleted following the office's report.

Despite the successful interventions, further reform is still needed, McEvoy said.

At the conclusion of his presentation, McEvoy showed images of the Wright Brothers in 1903, sitting on their plane after their first flight, and Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, sitting at a computer following the launch of Facebook.

McEvoy noted that it took about 20 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight for the first flight safety regulations to be put in place and he urged lawmakers and representatives to pay attention to emerging issues like AI and data collection.

"It takes a while to catch up sometimes, but now we're in the process of that happening," McEvoy said.