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Trudeau government quietly tested facial recognition on millions at Toronto Pearson airport

The Trudeau government quietly tested facial recognition technology on millions of travellers at Toronto Pearson International airport in 2016, with the hope of identifying potential deportees.

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Elie Cantin-Nantel Ottawa ON
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The Trudeau government quietly tested facial recognition technology on millions of travellers at Toronto Pearson International airport in 2016, with the hope of identifying potential deportees.

The Globe and Mail reported that the project, which is the largest known deployment of facial recognition by the Canadian government to date, lasted for six months. Its intent was to spot people who the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) had suspected could use fake forms of identification to try to enter the country.

A total of 31 cameras and 14 capture zones where installed in Terminal 3 of Toronto Pearson's Airport. The cameras would capture images of every traveller's face and run them through a list of 5,000 people who were previously deported. When the system found a match, the traveller was pulled to the side for a "secondary inspection".

According to the contractor hired by the government to run this project, Face4 Systems Inc, the facial recognition caught 47 people whose faces matched with the CBSA's database.

However, the use of facial recognition technology has been controversial, especially when the public isn't made aware that it is being used. In a statement to the The Globe and Mail, the CBSA stated the matches were "processed in accordance with operating procedures."

The agency added that facial recognition "would not have been the only indicator used in the traveller’s border clearance process or in determining their admissibility."

Tamir Israel, a lawyer at the University of Ottawa's Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, shared concerns to The Globe and Mail about the facial recognition project.

"I’m very concerned that the government chose to do this," said Israel, "This was deployed in a context where there was no public discussion in advance, with a technology that’s known to have flaws in terms of both accuracy and, in particular, racial biases. In such a high-stakes environment, that’s really concerning."

Israel added that he believes agencies like the CBSA should be required to obtain a public license before using technology like facial recognition.

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