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2nd Dec 2021

MEPs back EU facial-recognition ban for police

  • Most Europeans (55 percent) oppose the use of facial recognition in public spaces, according to a recent survey (Photo: Tony Gonzalez)
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The European Parliament has backed a moratorium on using facial recognition for law-enforcement purposes - ducking centre-right MEPs' efforts to torpedo the ban of the intrusive technology in public spaces.

The call, formally adopted on Tuesday (5 October), comes after repeated warnings from EU privacy watchdogs, the UN, and several NGOs, who agree that the risks linked to the use of AI-technologies in public spaces are aggravated in the field of law enforcement.

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It means the EU parliament now has for the first time an official position advocating for a ban on biometric mass surveillance, which sends a strong signal for negotiations of the first-ever EU rules on AI systems.

The text the MEPs approved calls on the European Commission to implement, through legislative and non-legislative means "a ban on any processing of biometric data, including facial images, for law enforcement purposes that leads to mass surveillance in publicly accessible spaces".

German Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer welcomed the vote as "a historic breakthrough to prevent a China-style dystopian future of biometric mass surveillance in Europe".

"AI is not dangerous only when used by autocratic governments, where the technology flows its flows no matter who uses or for what purposes. The good intentions do not justify the means," said the lead MEP Vitanov Petar from the centre-eft Socialist and Democrats, during a debate on the file on Monday.

Liberal MEP Karen Melchior, fore her part, argued that predictive profiling, risk assessment of AI and automated decision making systems were "as dangerous for our democracy as nuclear bombs are for living creatures".

But echoing the concerns of the EU Commission, Belgian MEP Tom Vandenkendelaere, from the centre-right European People's Party, said that "law enforcement authorities must be able to use the full potential of AI to fight criminals faster, more efficiently and in a more targeted places".

Moratorium back on agenda

San Francisco became the first major city in the United States to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other government agencies in 2019.

Minneapolis, Portland or Boston followed similar steps shortly after.

Ahead of the presentation of the white paper on AI last year, many hope for the European Union to follow a similar approach.

Leaked documents showed back then that a temporary ban on facial-recognition technologies in the EU was being considered by the EU Commission, but Brussels backtracked.

Under its proposal, unveiled in April, the use of facial recognition by law enforcement authorities in public spaces would be only allowed when searching for victims of crime or missing children, identifying a perpetrator or suspect of a criminal offence, or preventing an imminent threat, such as a terrorist attack.

Although such uses would be subject to authorisation and limited in time and geographic reach, this is widely seen as a loophole for mass surveillance.

Breyer, the German MEP, told EUobserver that scanning all EU citizens with the excuse to find a small group of people does not pass the proportionality test; mainly because of the low accuracy of these technologies and their discriminatory effects.

"There is not a single example of real-time biometric surveillance preventing a terrorist attack as proponents claim," he said.

Growing resistance

Last month, the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet voiced concern about the "unprecedented level of surveillance across the globe by state and private actors" - which she insisted was "incompatible" with fundamental human rights.

Speaking at a Council of Europe hearing over the Pegasus spyware scandal, she called on countries to ban the sale and use of AI systems until adequate safeguards are put in place.

Earlier this year, EU privacy watchdogs teamed up to call for a ban of the use of facial-recognition technologies in public spaces.

"A general ban on the use of facial recognition in publicly accessible areas is the necessary starting point if we want to preserve our freedoms and create a human-centric legal framework for AI," they said.

Meanwhile, NGOs and privacy defenders have long call for a moratorium, launching even the European Citizens' Initiative #ReclaimYourFace.

In March, a survey revealed that most Europeans (55 percent) oppose the use of facial recognition in public spaces.

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