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5th Jun 2020

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Pandemic speeds calls for ban on facial recognition

  • 'The EU has been a haven for unlawful biometric experimentation and surveillance,' according to NGO European Digital Rights (Photo: Delta News Hub)

Europe was already in the midst of a high-stakes debate over the ethics and legality of facial recognition technologies and mass surveillance - which the coronavirus pandemic has now brought to the fore.

"The EU has been a haven for unlawful biometric experimentation and surveillance," according to the Brussels-based NGO European Digital Rights (EDRi).

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And Belgium is so far the only member state which stated facial recognition is in breach of national law, although the government of Luxembourg has also stressed it is against facial recognition.

But for the general public, a recent study found 80 percent of Europeans are against sharing their facial data with authorities.

Facial-recognition technologies can be used to watch, track or analyse citizens - and even score them for "social credit", Chinese-style - but also to unblock a mobile phone or make a bank transfer.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, various technologies have been proposed as a magic bullet that could help to halt the spread of the coronavirus, such as tracking apps on smartphones or heat-cameras doing temperature checks in offices.

Moscow, for example, has used facial recognition technology to monitor whether citizens were following quarantines.

This is why EDRi called last week (13 May) on member states and the European Commission to ban the use facial recognition and biometric processing technologies in public spaces - in both law and practice.

"The introduction of facial recognition into cities is a radical and dystopic idea which significantly threatens our freedoms and poses fundamental questions about the kind of societies we want to live in," warned Ioannis Kouvakas from NGO Privacy International.

"We need to permanently ban its roll out now before it's too late," he added.

A report from the European Agency for Fundamental Rights points out that "a clear legal framework must regulate the deployment and use of facial recognition technologies".

Orwellian control?

"Apps cannot be used for mass surveillance. Individuals will keep control on their data," EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders told MEPs during the last plenary (14 May) amid concerns over privacy risks.

"Apps should be only used during the crisis and be deactivated at the latest when the pandemic is over," he added.

However, privacy defenders claimed that the real risk caused by widening surveillance tech-enabled solutions is that it could continue long after the pandemic is over.

According to Fanny Hidvégi from NGO Access Now, "protecting digital rights also promotes public health" - but the suspension of data protection rights in Hungary shows why the EU should step up in these matters.

"Some [tech companies and industry] see opportunities, when others suffer and authorities are struggling for air," a biophysicist and expert on physiological biometrics technology, Martin Zizi, told this website.

"We fool ourselves if we think that our constitution protects us against totalitarian urges," he added.

"We may join China as a dystopian totalitarian state not because we want to, but because of the greed of some and the fear of everyone," he warned, referring a 'national reputation' system developed by China.

The Chinese "social credit" scheme, which relies on the use of facial recognition and other technologies, has been strongly criticised for determining the opportunities, privileges and freedom citizens can enjoy.

Leaked 'ban'

Earlier this year, a leaked paper of the EU's white paper on artificial intelligence (AI) revealed that the European Commission was considering to impose a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition technology.

The commission finally backtracked on its plans to ban facial recognition - although this technology is expected to be subjected to binding requirements when considering "high-risk" applications, according to the EU's roadmap on AI.

"The EU should be and remain a beacon for the rule of law and individual rights: privacy is democracy," said Zizi.

"Once we start to be afraid of not being able to say [or do] things freely without fear, we already have lost our freedom of thinking. Is this the world you want to live in?" he added.

According to Lotte Houwing, policy advisor at Bits of Freedom, "we are shaping the world of tomorrow with the measures we are taking today".

"Surveillance is not a medicine," she said.

EU backtracks on plans to ban facial recognition

The European Commission came under fire on Wednesday for ruling out a moratorium on facial recognition. Instead, it proposed a public debate with stakeholders to determine when this technology might be used.

EU warned over fast-tracking facial recognition

A new report of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights calls for "a clear legal framework" to regulate facial recognition technologies, saying that collecting facial images of individuals without their consent can harm people's dignity.

EU Commission slammed for Covid-19 'mid-threat' ranking

The European Commission classified on Wednesday the coronavirus as a "mid-level" threat to workers, drawing criticism from socialist lawmakers and trade unions because the decision allows businesses to apply less stringent safety measures in the workplace.

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