Privacy Commissioners Take Position On Using Facial Recognition Technology – Privacy – Canada – Mondaq News Alerts

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Investigative findings 

In a joint investigation report, the Privacy Commissioner of
Canada, together with the commissioners of BC, Alberta, and Quebec
concluded that Clearview AI violated Canadians’ privacy rights
under federal and provincial privacy laws by scraping billons of
images of people available online to be continually used in what
amounted to a virtual “police lineup.” They found
Clearview collected highly sensitive information without the
knowledge or consent of individuals, and did so for an
inappropriate purpose. 

Several key considerations informed the commissioners’

Online data is protected

Heavy reliance on social media, and on the readily available
personal information found there, adds another wrinkle to this

Federal and provincial privacy laws have an exception to the
consent requirement for personal information that is “publicly
available.” While Clearview argued that the images they
scraped were “publicly available” and exempt from the
consent requirement, it used this information for a purpose
unrelated to the purposes for which the information had originally
been posted, and therefore could not rely on these

In short, the fact that personal information is available online
does not mean it can be used by anyone for any purpose he
or she chooses, or that consent is not necessary. Personal
information available online is still protected by privacy laws
unless the specific requirements of the “publicly
available” exception apply.

The meaning of the “publicly available”

The circumstances in which personal information is
“publicly available” are specifically defined under
privacy law. Clearview argued that the regulations should be
broadly interpreted to include public blogs, social media and other
public web content because these are like the
“publications” specifically mentioned or prescribed in
the regulations, and because a narrow interpretation would violate
the constitutional right to freedom of expression. 

The commissioners disagreed. They found that Clearview’s
assertions, taken to their natural conclusion, would apply to all
publicly accessible content on the Internet, regardless of who made
the information available or why it was uploaded in the first
place. They found this would undermine individuals’ ability to
maintain control over their personal information at the source, and
control is a fundamental component of privacy protection under the
law. Nor was the information “public by law,” which would
exempt it from Quebec’s private sector law, and no exception of
this nature exists for other biometric data under Quebec’s
information technology legislation.

Finally, Clearview failed to show how its constitutional freedom
of expression rights had been violated. It failed to explain how
its activities expressed a message relating to the pursuit of
truth, participation in the community, individual self-fulfillment
or human flourishing, which are the types of expression that the
constitutional right to freedom of expression is meant to

Purpose for data collection, use and disclosure 

While the words used vary slightly, the federal, Alberta and BC
privacy statutes require, as a minimum standard, that the purposes
for the collection, use or disclosure must be reasonable and
appropriate in the circumstances. Quebec law requires the
organization to have a “serious and legitimate reason” to
establish the file. 

Clearview’s stated purpose for collecting images and
creating the biometric database was to provide a service to law
enforcement personnel, and be used by others via trial accounts.
The commissioners found that such action was mass identification
and surveillance of individuals by private entities in the course
of a commercial activity. They concluded that this purpose was not
appropriate, reasonable or legitimate in the circumstances, and
thus contrary to applicable laws, because: 

  • the purpose was unrelated to the purposes for which those
    images were originally posted (for example, social media or
    professional networking);

  • it will often be to the detriment of the individuals whose
    images are captured (investigation, potential prosecution,
    embarrassment); and 

  • it creates the risk of significant harm to those individuals,
    including misidentification or exposure to a data breach, where the
    vast majority of the individuals have never been and will never be
    implicated in a crime or identified as a potential

Consent for data collection, use and disclosure

The commissioners also found that Clearview did not obtain the
consent required for its collection, use, and disclosure of
personal information. The guidelines for obtaining meaningful
consent, as articulated by Canadian privacy commissions, generally
require organizations to get express opt-in consent when:

  • the information being collected, used or disclosed is

  • the collection, use, or disclosure is outside of the reasonable
    expectations of the individual; and/or

  • the collection, use, or disclosure creates a meaningful
    residual risk of significant harm.

In addition to Clearview’s collection of images, its use to
create new biometric information (in the form of digital
representations for each image) constitutes a distinct and
additional collection and use of personal information. Biometric
information is sensitive in almost all circumstances and facial
biometric information is particularly sensitive. Further, the
collection for this purpose was beyond the individuals’
reasonable expectations and created a meaningful risk of harm.
Accordingly, express consent was required.

Finally, Clearview violated Quebec law by failing to get express
consent and failing to disclose its database of biometric
characteristics and measurements to the commission in accordance
with Quebec’s information technology legislation. 

The failure to get express consent, or any form of consent,
meant that the collection of personal information was carried out


Shortly after the investigation began, Clearview agreed to stop
providing its services in the Canadian market. It stopped offering
trial accounts to Canadian organizations and discontinued services
to its only remaining Canadian subscriber, the RCMP, in July

The commissioners recommended that Clearview stop offering its
biometric database services to Canadian clients, and confirm it
would not resume offering services in Canada in the future, stop
collecting images of individuals in Canada, and delete all
previously collected images and biometric facial arrays of
individuals in Canada.

Clearview expressly disagreed, and refused to accept the
findings or implement the recommendations. As such, the
commissioners indicated that, should Clearview maintain its
refusal, they each intend to pursue other actions available under
their respective acts to bring Clearview into compliance with
Canadian laws.

A related Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
investigation into the RCMP’s use of Clearview’s facial
recognition technology remains ongoing.


The rapid growth in reliance on biometrics for a variety of
commercial and other purposes has raised significant concerns not
only in Canada but also globally. The federal commissioner’s
office, along with its provincial counterparts, have issued
guidance for law enforcement agencies on using facial recognition
technologies; however, the development, use, and commercialization
of such technologies by businesses remains subject to scrutiny. The
key point of tension in the guidance will be balancing business
needs with individuals’ right to privacy. The
commissioners’ clear intention to enforce Clearview’s
compliance suggests these issues will continue to be on the front
burner for quite some time to come.

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