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Alberta cataloguing facial recognition data through driver’s licence photos

Albertans raised concerns last week when media reports of two Calgary shopping malls using facial recognition came to light, but you may be surprised to learn that the province has its own facial recognition software system that catalogues driver’s licence photos.

There isn’t much information available online about the system. It is noted on the Service Alberta website as an enhanced security feature, which prevents others from falsely applying for a license in someone else’s name.

Reference to the system shows up again on the page for Service Alberta’s Special Investigation Unit. That unit is tasked with providing “forensic expertise in reviewing/analysing all “hits” identified through the Driver’s Licence Facial Recognition software.”

No one from Service Alberta was available to speak to LiveWire on the record about the system, but the department did agree to answer questions by email.

According to Service Alberta, facial recognition first came into use in 2004, but the database reaches back as far as 1996.

The software was designed by the Canadian Bank Note Company – a private firm that specializes in security on currency, passports, as well as border security. Service Alberta noted that the “vast majority” of licence issuing jurisdictions in Canada and the US use similar systems.

According to the province, information from the facial recognition database is only used for preventing identity theft, preventing one person from attempting to create multiple aliases, and for establishing the identity of unknown people.

It’s that final broad category that worries Sharon Polsky, director of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association and president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada.

“Like anything else – it depends on what their internal policies say,” said Polsky.

“If their policies are clear and robust, then it’s not a problem.”

According to the province, use of the registry is governed by the Access to Motor Vehicle Information Regulation under the Traffic Safety Act. However the nine-page regulation document does not refer specifically to images or photos.

Polsky also expressed concern with the slippery slope of who gets access to the information.

The province confirmed that it will work with RCMP in relation to “serious offences” and in identifying deceased persons through use of the database.

Polsky noted that the RCMP is a federal body, and it’s not always clear who they’re sharing information with.

“We know that the RCMP shares information with other law enforcement agencies across Canada and internationally,” she said.

“We have no way of knowing just what they share, with whom, and for what sort of purposes.”

Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OPIC) accepted a privacy impact assessment (PIA) from Service Alberta on its facial recognition software back in 2004, when the system first launched.

Scott Sibbald, spokesman with OIPC, said a PIA is a due diligence exercise where a body voluntarily assesses the privacy implications of its system or program.

He said the fact that the OPIC accepted the PIA does not mean it approves of the system. It merely reflects the commissioner’s acceptance that Service Alberta made reasonable efforts to protect privacy.

Polsky said there are plenty of stories from south of the border where information in law enforcement data systems have been abused.

She suggested the province have honest and open consultations with the public about systems such as its facial recognition software.

“Modern technology has outpaced access and privacy laws – there are a lot of very intelligent people – who are totally ignorant of the technology, how it’s used, abused, and of the unintended consequences.”