Government facial recognition project tested on nearly 3 million unsuspecting travellers at Pearson airport in 2016

Feature photo by H W on Unsplash

By: Broderick Visser
Written on 2021-07-20

The Canadian federal government tested facial recognition technology on millions of non-consenting travellers at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport back in 2016.

A document obtained by The Globe and Mail through a freedom of information request shows the initiative was intended to identify people who were suspected of entering Canada with fake identification.

The six-month initiative, put in place by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), is the largest known government deployment of facial recognition technology in Canada to date.

The company who makes the technology, Face4 Systems is a Canadian-based company, headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario.

The project, dubbed “Faces on the Move,” hired Face4 to conduct the initiative.

As shown on their website, they have partnered with — or some of their customers have been companies like;

Screenshot from Face4 Systems’ website.

As travellers walked through the international arrivals border control area at Pearson’s Terminal 3, a total of 31 cameras captured images of their faces. If the system returned a match against a list of previously deported people, a border officer would review the match and pass the traveller’s information to another officer on the terminal floor to pull the traveller into secondary inspection.

Source: Face4 Systems INC.

According to a Face4 Systems presentation, facial recognition was used on 15,000 to 20,000 travellers per day. The CBSA told the Globe that 2,951,540 traveller passed through border control at Pearson’s Terminal 3 between July and December of 2016 when their pilot project what in motion.

In the Globe and Mail article, lawyer Tamir Israel states his concerns with the Canadian government and that they “chose to do this.” He points out that there is a strong case to be made that this type of implementation is not constitutional.

“I think there’s a strong case to be made that this type of implementation is not constitutional.”

Lawyer Tamir Israel in comment to The Globe and Mail.

He also suggested that Ottawa should institute policies that would require agencies like the CBSA to get a public license — and go directly to Parliament — before employing this type of technology on the Canadian public unknowingly.

CBSA spokesperson told True North that the agency “takes the issue of personal information and privacy seriously.”

The agency has no plans to use the facial recognition technology “in any other capacity.”

According to the CBSA, the technology has been removed from Pearson International Airport and travellers’ images have since been erased.


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