Montreal should restrict police use of facial recognition technology: councillor

MONTREAL — A Montreal city councillor said he will introduce a motion next week to restrict the use of facial recognition and other "invasive" surveillance technologies by city police.

The motion, to be introduced on Monday, is based on a bylaw adopted by New York City and would be the first in Canada to address the use of facial recognition technology by police, said Marvin Rotrand, the opposition councillor behind the motion.

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His initiative has the backing of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Black Coalition of Quebec and former federal justice minister Irwin Cotler.

"One of the most important rights of a citizen to be protected by their state is the right to be left alone, the right to be a face in the crowd," Michael Bryant, the executive director of the CCLA, told a virtual news conference Friday. "Facial fingerprinting technology is anathema to that right."

Black Coalition president Max Stanley Bazin said his group is particularly concerned about facial recognition technology because it is less accurate at identifying non-white people, and he's worried about false positives.

Cotler said principles of transparency, oversight, and accountability have to be respected. "What is at stake here is the protection of the rights to privacy, dignity and equality," he said.

The motion would ban the use of IMSI-catchers, a type of cell phone surveillance device often referred to by the brand name Stingray. It would also require city police to obtain city council approval before buying, renting, deploying or using facial recognition technology, automated license plate readers or cell phone surveillance devices.

Police would also be required to submit a report on their use of these technologies since 2015 before the last city council meeting of the year and, in future years, be required to submit an annual report.

Rotrand said the Montreal police service has "stonewalled" attempts by elected officials to find out whether it’s using facial recognition technology and IMSI-catchers.

Montreal city council first voted to ask police about their use of facial recognition technology in August 2019. In a November appearance before the city's public safety committee, police Chief Sylvain Caron refused to say whether his department uses the technology.

In a May letter to the chair of the public safety committee, Caron said that the service doesn't own or use facial recognition technology but that in certain "exceptional" cases, it may engage a third party that does.

Montreal police haven't said whether they use IMSI-catchers. Those devices, which gather information about cell phones by mimicking cell phone towers, are controversial because they connect to all cell phones in the area where they're deployed, not just the device targeted by police.

"In terms of Stingray devices, they are fighting elected officials at the access to information commission," Rotrand said. He said they are refusing to make public information that police forces in Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto as well as the RCMP and Quebec provincial police have revealed.

Bryant noted that "due process and appropriate safeguards" are in place to govern police collection of such biometric information as fingerprints or DNA. "But when it comes to facial biometrics, police around the world pretend that the same safeguards are unnecessary," he said.

It remains unclear whether Montreal's governing party, Projet Montreal, will support the motion. Genevieve Jutras, a spokeswoman for the city's executive committee, said measures such as those proposed by Rotrand are a provincial responsibility, but they "will discuss this matter during the city council Monday."

Montreal police said through a spokesperson they have no comment on the proposed motion but they follow all laws governing their operations and investigations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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