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18th Jan 2021

Facial-recognition moratorium back on EU agenda

  • The EU's data watchdog called this week for a temporary ban on any software that captures faces - and also gait, fingerprints, DNA, voice, keystrokes and other biometric or behavioural signals in public spaces (Photo: EFF Photos)

The European Parliament's committee on civil liberties backed on Thursday (2 July) a moratorium on facial recognition for law-enforcement purposes - following the EU data watchdog earlier this week, which backed a ban on this technology in public spaces.

"Legislation is never perfect, but this is the right step in the right direction," said socialist MEP Tudor Ciuhodaru, who is the rapporteur on artificial intelligence in criminal law, and its use by the police and judicial authorities.

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In his report, Ciuhodaru warned the risks linked to AI-technologies are aggravated in law enforcement as they might undermine the presumption of innocence, liberty, security, effective remedy or fair trial rights of individuals.

"The current state-of-play of these technologies, and the significant impacts on fundamental rights, call for an in-depth and open societal debate to consider the justification for their deployment," he warned.

The European Data Protection Supervisor, meanwhile, also this week (30 June) called for a temporary ban on any software that captures not only faces - but also gait, fingerprints, DNA, voice, keystrokes and other biometric or behavioural signals in public spaces.

Data protection supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski hopes to convince the European Commission that such a moratorium is necessary, since the technology is not mature enough.

Ahead of the commission's white paper on Artificial Intelligence, it was considering a temporary ban on facial recognition technologies in the EU.

But it finally backtracked, saying that not all uses of facial-recognition technologies pose a "high risk" for citizens' fundamental rights.

Nevertheless, the commission is currently considering feedback given in the public consultation on its white paper.

The EU commissioner in charge of the digital agenda, Margrethe Vestager, said this week that to use of technology to identify potential future criminal activities - also known as predictive policing - is "not acceptable" in the EU.

However, as liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld pointed out during the discussion on Thursday, facial recognition technologies are already being used all across Europe and law enforcement authorities are neither open nor transparent about their use - undermining public scrutiny.

"Our legislation is not effective, we need to hold law enforcement accountable," in 't Veld warned.

"This [technology] is already used by police forces even though national and European supervisors consider that there is a possible breach in data-protection rules," she added, referring to the use of facial technologies from the American firm Clearview AI.

The European Data Protection Board said in a statement that "the use of a service such as Clearview AI by law enforcement authorities in the European Union would, as it stands, likely not be consistent with the EU data protection regime".

Last week, the United Nations also called on police forces around the world to stop using facial-recognition technology on citizens attending peaceful protests, pointing out the bias and discrimination risks that these technologies pose against African-descent people and other minorities.

US 'Big Tech' companies, such as IBM, Amazon and Microsoft, recently announced that they will not sell their facial-recognition technologies to law-enforcement authorities.

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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.

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