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Identifying G20 suspects using banks' software a legal risk, police told

Civil liberties groups are condemning as a legal "black hole" the Toronto Police Service's plan to use the banking industry's facial recognition software to help identify people on a G20 "most wanted" list.

At a news conference Wednesday, Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux released the photos of 10 suspects and said the force intends to work with the Canadian Bankers Association, which owns the software. The investigation would involve scanning thousands of digital images taken during the summit weekend protests, and police expect to release more suspect photos in the weeks to come.

"The concern of Canadian Civil Liberties Association is the lack of experience of the judicial system with facial recognition software and the danger of many people being arrested based on a technology that has not been fully explored and tested in our legal system," said CCLA general counsel Nathalie Des Rosiers.

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The technology creates a kind of mathematical equation out of facial structures and searches databases for a match, according to Detective Sergeant Giroux. A CBA technician will work alongside the investigative team to run images of unidentified suspects through a police database of photographs of people arrested during the summit, as well as a larger database of known criminals. In addition, Montreal police have supplied a database of Black Bloc sympathizers.

"We may very well have them already and the software can kick them out within seconds," he said.

But the police and the CBA have differing accounts of how this partnership came to be, and how it will function. According to CBA director of communications Maura Drew-Lytle, the TPS approached the bankers' lobby, but Detective Sergeant Giroux said in an interview that the CBA offered its services. He also said the technician would run the photos through a CBA database of people involved in bank robberies and other crimes, but Ms. Drew-Lytle said no such information would be provided to police investigators.

Detective Sergeant Giroux said police haven't yet used the facial recognition software because he is still determining whether it is "acceptable" for a CBA technician to work with police databases. "It's more of a logistical issue as to whether or not members of the banking community can tap into our system."

The investigative use of the technology is in its infancy. The American Civil Liberties Union, citing various U.S. government studies, has warned that facial recognition software can be inconsistent because individual's facial features, unlike iris patterns or fingerprints, can change quite rapidly. The concern, said Ms. Des Rosier, "is the lack of certainty."

Detective Sergeant Giroux said he doesn't see the plan as violating civil liberties. "It's very much like when you're in the general public, in my opinion, with regards to the fact that people are videotaped and photographed every day. And these pictures were photographed in the normal course of investigations and certainly our database is that of people who were arrested for criminal acts," he said.

The approach could also raise privacy issues, as the police surveillance data would be made available to a private entity.

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Anne-Marie Hayden, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said the agency has been following the G20 situation, but added that federal government did not consult the commissioner on privacy issues relating to video surveillance prior to the event.

For its part, the Toronto Police Service did advise the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPCO) of its plans to use video cameras during the summit. The TPS told the agency that its G20 operations would be governed by the same protocols and policies that apply to the force's daily use of closed-circuit television, IPCO spokesperson Angus Fisher said.

When the images are with the CBA, said Ms. Des Rosiers, "we have less means to challenge the way in which they keep the data, to ensure that it's not tampered with, and only appropriate persons are using it for the appropriate purposes."

The 10 suspects on yesterday's "most wanted" list aren't necessarily being sought for the worst offences, said Detective Sergeant Giroux, who plans to make public photographs of additional suspects on a weekly basis.

Police released photos of several suspects last week, three of which were identified within hours, he said. One of those, 25-year-old Ashan Ravindhraraj, was charged Wednesday with arson and two counts of mischief over $5,000 in relation to allegedly burning a police cruiser and smashing store windows.

The following images from the G20 protests were submitted by readers to The Globe's Flickr pool. To view captions and credits, click the expand button (four arrows in a box) and choose "Show info" from the top right menu.

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