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Mall real estate company collected 5 million images of shoppers, say privacy watchdogs

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The real estate company behind some of Canada’s most popular shopping centres embedded cameras inside their digital information kiosks at 12 shopping malls across Canada to collect millions of images and used facial recognition technology without customers’ knowledge or consent, according to a new investigation by the federal, Alberta and B.C. privacy commissioners.

Cadillac Fairview, the real estate company behind some of Canada’s most popular shopping centres, embedded cameras inside its digital information kiosks at 12 shopping malls across Canada, according to a new investigation.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The real estate company behind some of Canada’s most popular shopping centres embedded cameras inside its digital information kiosks at 12 shopping malls across Canada to collect millions of images — and used facial recognition technology without customers’ knowledge or consent — according to a new investigation by the federal, Alberta and B.C. privacy commissioners.

“Shoppers had no reason to expect their image was being collected by an inconspicuous camera, or that it would be used, with facial recognition technology, for analysis,” said federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien in a statement.

“The lack of meaningful consent was particularly concerning given the sensitivity of biometric data, which is a unique and permanent characteristic of our body and a key to our identity.”

Cadillac Fairview said it used AVA (anonymous video analytics) to assess foot traffic and track shoppers’ ages and genders. The company argued shoppers were made aware of the activity through decals it had placed on shopping mall entry doors that referred to Cadillac Fairview’s privacy policy.

The privacy watchdogs also found that Cadillac Fairview contravened privacy laws by failing to “obtain meaningful consent” when it collected five million images with inconspicuous cameras.

Cadillac Fairview also used video analytics to collect and analyze sensitive biometric information of customers, investigators said.

Company says technology couldn’t identify people

The watchdogs said the facial recognition software was used to generate additional personal information about individual shoppers, including estimated ages and genders. The images were subsequently deleted — but investigators found that the sensitive biometric information generated from the images was being stored in a centralized database by a third party.

“Cadillac Fairview stated that it was unaware that the database of biometric information existed, which compounded the risk of potential use by unauthorized parties or, in the case of a data breach, by malicious actors,” said the investigation report.

This directory in Chinook Centre mall in south Calgary uses facial recognition technology.(Sarah Rieger/CBC)

The company said the technology was used to detect the presence of a human face and assign it “within milliseconds” to an approximate age and gender category.

Cadillac Fairview spokesperson Jess Savage said the AVA technology did not store any images during the pilot program and was not capable of recognizing anyone.

“The five million representations referenced in the [Office of the Privacy Commissioner] report are not faces.These are sequences of numbers the software uses to anonymously categorize the age range and gender of shoppers in the camera’s view,” she said in a statement to CBC News.

“The OPC report concludes there is no evidence that CF was using any technology for the purpose of identifying individuals.”

CF suspended its use of cameras back in 2018 when provincial and federal privacy commissioners launched their probe following a CBC investigation.

In a statement to CBC News on Thursday, the company said it has no plans to reinstall the cameras.

“We subsequently deactivated directory cameras and the numerical representations and associated data have since been deleted,” said Savage.

“We take the concerns of our visitors seriously and wanted to ensure they were acknowledged and addressed.”

However, the three commissioners said they have concerns about the company’s plans going forward.

“The commissioners remain concerned that Cadillac Fairview refused their request that it commit to ensuring express, meaningful consent is obtained from shoppers should it choose to redeploy the technology in the future,” said the commissioners’ statement.

Savage said Cadillac Fairview accepted and implemented all the recommendations “with the exception of those that speculate about hypothetical future uses of similar technology.”

The investigation found the technology was used in five provinces at the following malls:

  • CF Market Mall (Alberta)
  • CF Chinook Centre (Alberta)
  • CF Richmond Centre (British Columbia)
  • CF Pacific Centre (British Columbia)
  • CF Polo Park (Manitoba)
  • CF Toronto Eaton Centre (Ontario)
  • CF Sherway Gardens (Ontario)
  • CF Lime Ridge (Ontario)
  • CF Fairview Mall (Ontario)
  • CF Markville Mall (Ontario)
  • CF Galeries d’Anjou (Quebec)
  • CF Carrefour Laval (Quebec)

With files from Thomas Daigle

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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