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Make AI consultation public, B.C. legislature officers tell NDP

The artificial intelligence principles consultation only involved provincial government staff yet could heavily impact the public.
B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy. Photo by OIPC

The province should consult British Columbians as it drafts grounds rules for the responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI), three B.C. Legislature officers say.

In a Dec. 7 letter, B.C. information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy, ombudsperson Jay Chalke, and human rights commissioner Kasari Govender called on the province to take "urgent action" on AI.

“We now stand at a critical crossroads in the development of AI,” states the letter. 

“We encourage the government to expand its consultation to members of the public as they will unquestionably be affected by any introduction of AI into the delivery of public services.”

The letter was issued the same day that federal and provincial information and privacy commissioners released a draft set of principles aimed at advancing the development of AI in a responsible, trustworthy and privacy-protective way.

They said British Columbians need to know when AI is used to make a decision about them, and that the government must establish rules and restrictions on AI's use of highly sensitive information.

The ministry confirmed receipt of the commissioners and ombudsperson’s letter.

“As they noted we are developing a responsible use of AI policy framework, including draft guiding principles,” the ministry said in a statement. “We’re reviewing their letter, including the request for public engagement.”

AI could undermine trust in government, warn Legislature officers

The letter followed a 2021 joint report from Chalke and McEvoy recommending public bodies commit to guiding principles to ensure fairness and privacy when AI is used to deliver public services.

Government use of AI could have serious, long-lasting impacts on people’s lives and could create tension with the fairness and privacy obligations of democratic institutions, the 2021 Getting Ahead of the Curve report said. That, Chalke and McEvoy said, undermines trust in government.

Now, said Chalke, “artificial intelligence can have potential benefits in the delivery of public services, but with today’s announcement we want to draw attention to the threats it poses to the public. We want to make sure that government takes steps to mitigate these threats to fair treatment and people’s rights.”

The letter said the ombudsperson and the two commissioners should be consulted on issues relating to privacy, human rights, and administrative fairness before the principles are finalized. The officers said reform of existing laws and regulations may be needed to ensure alignment with global regulatory efforts on the use of AI.

“AI’s rapid advances heighten the urgency for government to set ground rules for its use,” McEvoy said.

"Systems that rely on massive amounts of personal data, if not governed properly, have the potential to undermine the fundamental privacy rights of all British Columbians, including the protection of their privacy. It is critical to build trust in these systems from the outset.”

Govender said it’s essential that the technology be employed to serve people equally and that biases in predictive technology be recognized.

“AI can make it harder for us to tease out and address these biases when they are hidden beneath the veneer of algorithmic decision-making," said Govender.

Govender added that decision-makers must ensure that AI doesn't deepen inequalities.

Federal and provincial principles

On Tuesday, federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners launched a set of principles to advance the responsible, trustworthy and privacy-protective development and use of generative AI technologies in Canada.

They said that while AI presents potential benefits across many domains and in everyday life, there are also risks and potential harms to privacy, data protection, and other fundamental human rights if such technologies are not properly developed and regulated.

The joint document lays out how key privacy principles apply when developing, providing, or using generative AI models, tools, products and services.

Those principles include: 

  • establishing legal authority for collecting and using personal information, and when relying on consent, ensuring that it is valid and meaningful; 
  • being open and transparent about the way information is used and the privacy risks involved; 
  • making AI tools explainable to users;
  • developing safeguards for the protection of privacy rights; and,
  • limiting sharing of personal, sensitive or confidential information.

The commissioners urged developers to take into consideration the unique impact AI tools can have on vulnerable groups, including children. 

Best practices, they said, could include implementing “privacy by design” into the development of the tools, and the labelling content created by generative AI.