Monday, May 08, 2023

British Columbia Privacy Commissioner shuts down facial recognition

Recently, the information and privacy commissioner of British Columbia issued a decision that essentially shuts down most use of facial recognition technology in the retail context.

What’s interesting is that the Commissioner undertook this investigation on his own accord. In order to see how prevalent the use of facial recognition was among the province’s retailers, the OIPC surveyed 13 of the province’s largest retailers (including grocery, clothing, electronics, home goods, and hardware stores): 12 responded that they did not use FRT. The remaining retailer, Canadian Tire Corporation, requested that the OIPC contact their 55 independently owned Associate Dealer stores in the province. In the result, 12 stores reported using FRT. Based on these 12 responses, the Commissioner commenced an investigation under s. 36(1)(a) of the Personal Information Protection Act of four of the locations, scattered across the province. 

What’s also interesting is that the stores immediately ceased use of the technology, but the Commissioner determined that doing a full investigation was warranted, so that retailers would be aware of the privacy issues with the use of facial recognition in this context. 

The investigated stores used two different vendors’ systems, but they essentially operated the same way: The systems functioned took pictures or videos of anyone who entered the stores, as they came within range of the FRT cameras. This included customers, staff, delivery personnel, contractors, and minors who might have entered the store. Using software, the facial coordinates from these images or videos were mapped to create a unique biometric template for each face. So everyone was analyzed this way.

The systems then compared the biometrics of new visitors with those stored in a database of previously identified "Persons of Interest," who were allegedly involved in incidents such as theft, vandalism, harassment, or assault. When a new visitor's biometrics matched an existing record in the database, the FRT system sent an automatic alert to store management and security personnel via email or a mobile device application. The alerts contained the newly captured image or video that triggered the match, along with a copy of the previously collected image from the Persons of Interest database and any relevant comments or details about the prior incidents. According to store managers, these alerts were “advisory” until the match was confirmed in person by management or security personnel.

Store management reported that after a positive match was verified, the nature of the prior incident allegedly involving the individual helped determine a course of action. If a prior incident included violence, management or security staff would escort the individual from the store. If the prior incident involved theft, management may have chosen to surveil or remove the person in question

The legal questions posed by the Commissioner were (1) whether consent was required under PIPA for the collection and use of images for this purpose, (2) whether the stores provided notification and obtained the necessary consent (through signage or otherwise) and – most importantly – (3) whether this collection and use is for an “appropriate purpose” under s. 11 and 14 of PIPA.

The first question was easy to answer: Yes, consent is required in this context. PIPA, like PIPEDA, requires organizations to obtain consent, either explicitly or implicitly, before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information unless a specific exception applies. No such exceptions applied in this case. Therefore, the Commissioner concluded it was incumbent on the stores to show that individuals gave consent for the collection of their personal information. 

How would you get that consent? Well the stores had signage at the entrances. Clear signage is usually sufficient for the use of surveillance cameras, but the question would be whether these would be sufficient for this use.

Store number 1 had a sign that stated, in part: “these premises are monitored by video surveillance that may include the use of electronic and/or biometric surveillance technologies.”

The Commissioner said this was inadequate. The notice did not state the purposes for the collection of personal information. Also, stating that biometric surveillance “may” be in use did not reflect that the store continuously employed the technology. The Commissioner said the average person cannot reasonably be expected to understand how their information may be handled by “biometric surveillance technologies,” let alone the implications and risks of this new technology. Consent requires that an individual understands what they are agreeing to – and the posted notification failed to adequately alert the public in this case, according to the Commissioner. This store failed to meet notification requirements under PIPA.

The second store had a notice that stated, in part: “facial recognition technology is being used on these premises to protect our customers and our business.” 

This one was also not satisfactory to the Commissioner. The purpose, as set out, is so  broad that the statement would relay no specific meaning to the average person. Furthermore, the notice does not explain what facial recognition technology entails or the nature of the personal information collected. One cannot reasonably assume that members of the public understand what FRT is, nor its privacy implications, according to the Commissioner.

Stores 3 and 4 had better notices, but they still didn’t satisfy the Commissioner. Their notices stated: “video surveillance cameras and FRT (also known as biometrics) are used on these premises for the protection of our customers and staff. These technologies are also used to support asset protection, loss prevention and to prevent persons of interest from conducting further crime. The images are for internal use only, except as required by law or as part of a legal investigation.” 

It has more detail, but was not that well written. It does not say what “FRT” is. The commissioner noted that the abbreviation is not yet well-known or widely understood. Using the full phrase “facial recognition technology” along with a basic explanation of its workings would have provided a more accurate description of the stores’ data-collection activities. Even so, the Commissioner said that North American society is not yet at the point where it is reasonable to assume that the majority of the population understands what personal information FRT collects, or creates, as well as the technology’s privacy implications. All of this would have to be spelled out. 

While you may be able to rely on implied consent for the use of plain old fashioned surveillance cameras, the Commissioner concluded that you cannot for facial recognition technology, at least in this context. 

The Commissioner said facial biometrics are a highly sensitive, unique, and unchangeable form of personal information. Collecting, using, and sharing this information goes beyond what people would reasonably expect when entering a retail store, and using FRT creates a significant and lasting risk of harm. The Commissioner said the distinctiveness and permanence of this biometric data can make it an attractive target for misuse, potentially becoming a tool to compromise an individual's identity. In the wrong hands, the Commissioner wrote, this information can lead to identity theft, financial loss, and other severe consequences. (I am not entirely sure how…)

As a result, the four stores were required to obtain explicit consent from customers before collecting their facial biometrics. However, they did not make any attempts, either verbally or in writing, to obtain such consent.

So the notices were not adequate and the stores didn’t get the right kind of consent. But the last nail in the coffin for this use of biometrics was the Commissioner’s conclusion about whether the use of facial recognition technology for these purposes is reasonable. 

Reasonableness is determined by looking at the amount of personal information collected, the Sensitivity of the information, the likelihood of being effective and whether less intrusive alternatives had been attempted.

With respect to the Amount of personal information collected, it was vast. The commissioner said a large quantity of personal information was collected from various sources, including customers, staff, contractors, and other visitors. The stores reported that their establishments were visited by hundreds of individuals of all ages, including minors, every day so during a single month, the FRT systems captured images of thousands of people who were simply shopping and not engaging in any harmful activities. The sheer volume of information collected suggests that the collection was unreasonable.

You won’t be surprised that the Commissioner concluded that the personal information at issue was super-duper sensitive. 

With respect to the likelihood of being effective, they didn’t really have in place any system to measure it. The commissioner concluded it really wasn’t that effective. 

The Commissioner wrote that before implementing new technology that collects personal information, organizations should establish a reliable method to measure the technology's effectiveness. This typically involves comparing relevant metrics before and after the technology's implementation. 

However, in this case, the stores did not provide any systematic evidence of measuring their FRT system's effectiveness. Instead, they only gave anecdotal evidence of incidents before and after installation. Without a clear way to measure the technology's effectiveness, it is challenging to analyze this factor, particularly when collecting highly sensitive personal information.

The accuracy of FRT technology is also a related issue. Systems such as these have been reported widely to falsely match facial biometrics of people of colour and women. 

The store managers acknowledged that the alerts could be inaccurate and relied on staff to compare database images to a visual observation of the individual. This manual check by staff suggests that the FRT system may not be effective. False identification can have harmful consequences when innocent shoppers are followed or confronted based on an inaccurate match.

Besides the system's accuracy, its effectiveness can also be judged against the existing methods used by the stores to identify potential suspects. The store managers stated that their security guards and managers typically knew the "bad actors" and could recognize them without FRT alerts. The persons of interest were often professional thieves who repeatedly returned to the store.

Moreover, there is little evidence that FRT enhanced customer and employee safety. Whether a person of interest was identified by FRT or by the visual recognition of an employee, the stores' next steps were the same. These involved deciding whether to observe the suspected person or interact with them directly, including escorting them from the premises. In either case, store managers rarely reported contacting the police for assistance.

As for whether less intrusive alternatives had been attempted, the less intrusive measures were what they were doing before. The Commissioner concluded that the use of FRT didn’t add a lot to solving the stores problems, but collected a completely disproportionate amount of sensitive personal information. The less intrusive means – without biometrics – largely did the trick. 

In the end, the Commissioner made three main recommendations. 

The first was that the stores should build and maintain robust privacy management programs that guide internal practices and contracted services. – presumably so they wouldn’t implement practices such as these that are offside the legislation. 

This report also makes two recommendations for the BC government: The BC Government should amend the Security Services Act or similar enactments to explicitly regulate the sale or installation of technologies that capture biometric Information. 

Finally, the BC Government should amend PIPA to create additional obligations for organizations that collect, use, or disclose biometric information, including requiring notification to the OIPC. This would be similar to what’s in place in Quebec where biometric databases need to be disclosed to the province’s privacy commissioner. 

I think, for all intents and purposes, this shuts down the use of facial recognition technology in the retail context, where it is being used to identify “bad guys”.