TORONTO -- The federal privacy watchdog and three provincial ombudsmen have announced an investigation into the controversial facial recognition software used by several police services, including Toronto.

“The investigation was initiated in the wake of numerous media reports that have raised questions and concerns about whether the company is collecting and using personal information without consent,” officials said in a news release issued on Wednesday.

The investigation into Clearview AI was prompted by media reports stating that the company was “using its technology to collect images and make facial recognition available to law enforcement for the purposes of identifying individuals,” the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said.

“The company has also claimed to be providing its services to financial institutions.”

Last week, the Toronto Police Service confirmed to CP24 that several of its officers were using the technology for months without the knowledge of Chief Mark Saunders.

Spokesperson Meaghan Gray, at the time, referred to the officers’ use as “informal testing,” which began in October 2019 before it was ordered to be stopped by Saunders.

“The Chief directed that its use be halted immediately upon his awareness, and the order to cease using the product was given on Feb. 5, 2020,” she said.

mark saunders

It is not known exactly how and when Saunders became of aware of the testing.

Gray said the Toronto Police Service has requested for the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Office of the Crown Attorney to work with officers in reviewing the technology as an investigative tool.

“Until a fulsome review of the product is completed, it will not be used by the Toronto Police Service,” she said.

Peel Regional Police also confirmed to CP24 that it had accessed Clearview AI, but said officers were told to “cease” testing until the product had been properly assessed.

“The Chief has directed that testing cease until a full assessment is undertaken pursuant to a concurrent ongoing facial recognition review project,” Const. Sarah Patten said. She added that the software was never used in any active investigation.

As well, Halton Regional Police confirmed to CTV News Toronto that its officers began using a free trial of the facial recognition tool in October 2019. A spokesperson, Const. Ryan Anderson, said the service “is not moving forward with any decisions regarding future use of the application” pending a review by officials.

The Toronto Star has reported that Durham Regional Police has also tested the controversial facial recognition tool.

Clearview AI, according to its website, offers law enforcement a tool to search public images that it has collected from the Internet to help with investigations.

The company was founded in 2017 by Richard Schwartz and Hoan Ton-That. It became the subject of a New York Times report last month, which revealed that more than 600 law enforcement agencies, as well as a handful of companies, were using the technology.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said he will be conducting the investigation alongside provincial counterparts in Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia.

Daniel Therrien

Therrien’s office said the four privacy regulators will examine whether the company’s practices comply with Canadian privacy laws.