07/22/2011 08:50 EDT | Updated 09/21/2011 05:12 EDT

Vancouver Riot Investigation: Police Use Of Facial Recognition Technology Draws Attention Of Privacy Commissioner

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - British Columbia's privacy czar is keeping a close eye on what personal information is being gleaned from the Crown auto insurer's facial recognition technology as police try to identify suspects in the Stanley Cup riot.

Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham confirmed Friday she has launched an investigation into whether provincial privacy law is being followed as the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia works with authorities in the massive task of pinpointing those criminally responsible.

The corporation offered its help in the aftermath of the destruction last month, saying it can match driver's licence photographs stored in its huge database with digital images capturing people wreaking havoc in downtown Vancouver.

Hordes of individuals set cars ablaze, smashed dozens of store windows and looted following the Canucks loss to the Boston Bruins in the final game of the series.

Denham said ICBC must comply with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act when it uses the technology.

"There is a fine balance to be struck in weighing a citizen's privacy interests and the use of personal information for law enforcement," Denham said in a news release.

"This balancing of interests must be undertaken within the confines of existing law."

Denham has been wary of the collaboration since ICBC first suggested it would aid police.

"This is a very, very tricky area of law, especially when government bodies have new technologies and new caches and extensive databases of personal information,'' she said at the time.

On Friday, the commissioner declined to be interviewed. Her release didn't explain what prompted the formal investigation.

The general principle of the Act is that information collected by a government agency can only be used for one purpose, she explained late last month. That means a driver's licence database shouldn't be used in another way.

But there is a provision in the law allowing information to be disclosed to the police for law-enforcement purposes, Denham said. That's why judicial oversight is so crucial.

"Obviously what happened in Vancouver is very troubling and very serious but police can't override due process and the rule of law."

Investigators with the Vancouver Police are now pouring through 15,000 photos but have not yet asked the corporation to crunch any of the images through its software, said ICBC spokesman Adam Grossman.

"If that does happen, we will not share any personal information without a court order," he said, adding the corporation is co-operating fully with Denham's office.

"We welcome any findings that might further strengthen our practices in these areas."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has previously criticized the relationship ICBC is forming with the police on this matter.

The commission will publicly release its report when the investigation is complete.

Members of the public uploaded thousands of photos of rioters on social networking sites and sent them as evidence to police in the following days. Police say they expect to lay hundreds of charges in relation to the looting and destruction that took place.