Authoritarian surveillance technology or fundamental rights? The decision should be easy

May 2022 open letter addressed to MEPs by 53 organizations representing civil society

In Europe and worldwide, the use of biometric identification systems (BIS), such as facial recognition in public space, represents one of the greatest threats to fundamental rights and democracy that we have never seen. Remote use of these systems destroys anonymity in public and endangers the essence of our rights to privacy, the protection of personal data, the right to freedom of expression, the rights to freedom of assembly and association (leading to the criminalization of protest and causing a chilling effect), and the rights to equality and non-discrimination.

Without a clear and simple ban on the use of these new technologies in public spaces, all the places where we exercise our rights and gather as citizens will be transformed into sites of mass surveillance where we will always be. you treated like suspects.

This damage is not hypothetical.

Uyghur Muslims have been systematically persecuted by the Chinese government through facial recognition. Pro-democracy protesters and political opponents have been suppressed or targeted in Russia, Serbia and Hong Kong through the use – and in some cases, the simple fear of using – SIB in public spaces.

There is also already significant evidence that French and European residents have been systematically subjected to mass biometric surveillance practices. These are cases where football supporters, school children, commuters, shoppers or people frequenting LGBTQ+ bars and places of worship are being targeted and the harm is real and widespread.

Even some of the largest companies that provide biometric surveillance systems, such as Microsoft, IBM and Amazon, have adopted moratoriums of their own volition, due to the major risks and damages these systems could cause. In the same line, Facebook deleted its database containing images of faces.

The need for regulation is felt across Europe, and some member states have already taken the lead: Italy was the first country to introduce a moratorium on facial recognition in public places. Germany’s ruling coalition has called for a Europe-wide moratorium on mass surveillance using biometric data and Portugal has dropped a bill that would have led to the legalization of some of these practices. And the Belgian parliament is considering a moratorium on biometric surveillance.

The draft European regulation on AI is the obvious tool that the European Parliament could use to create a coherent legislative framework for the protection of data and individual freedoms. The EU is a pioneer in AI regulation, the rules enacted in Europe will influence practices and laws all over the world.

Will the European Union allow mass surveillance technology that would be dangerous to our freedoms?

To protect fundamental rights, the AI ​​Act must prohibit all remote uses (i.e. widespread surveillance) of biometric identification (RBI) in publicly accessible spaces by:
• Extending the scope of the ban to all private actors as well as public actors;
• Ensuring that all uses of biometric identification (in real time or a posteriori) in spaces accessible to the public are included in the ban;
• Remove exceptions to the ban, which independent human rights assessments confirm do not comply with existing European fundamental rights standards.
• Put a stop to discriminatory or manipulative forms of biometric categorization
• Properly address the risks of emotion recognition

The EU aims to create an “ecosystem of trust and excellence” for AI and to position itself as a world leader in AI that would be reliable and ethical. By regulating the use of biometric data, we would have the opportunity to shape AI to be a service to the people, not a powerful technology.

This is why we must ensure that the amendments of the IMCO and LIBE committees on the AI ​​regulation contain a ban on mass surveillance using biometric data.

Read the May 2022 open letter sent to MEPs by 53 organizations representing civil society.

May 10, 2022

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