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

Open letter, May 2022, addressed to MEPs from 53 civil society organisations.

In Europe and around the world, the use of Biometric Identification Systems (BIS) such as face recognition in public places represents one of the greatest threats to fundamental rights and democracy that we have ever seen. The remote use of these systems destroys public anonymity and jeopardizes the essence of our rights to privacy, the protection of personal data, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly and association (which criminalizes protest and has 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 places, all places where we exercise our rights and gather as citizens will turn into places of mass surveillance, where we will always be treated as suspects.

This damage is not hypothetical.

The Chinese government systematically persecutes Uyghur Muslims through facial recognition. Pro-democracy protesters and political opponents have been repressed or persecuted in Russia, Serbia, and Hong Kong due to the use, and in some cases, simple fear of the use of SIBs in public places.

There is also already strong evidence that the inhabitants of France and Europe were systematically subjected to the practice of mass biometric surveillance. These are cases where football fans, schoolchildren, commuters, shoppers, or people who frequent LGBTQ+ bars and places of worship are targeted, and the harm is real and widespread.

Even some of the largest companies providing biometric surveillance systems, such as Microsoft, IBM and Amazon, have adopted moratoriums of their own accord due to the serious risks and damage these systems can cause. In the same vein, Facebook has removed its database containing face images.

The need for regulation is felt across Europe, and some Member States have already taken the lead: Italy has become the first country to impose a moratorium on facial recognition in public places. Germany’s governing coalition has called for a pan-European moratorium on mass surveillance using biometrics, while Portugal has rejected a bill that would legalize some of these practices. And the Belgian Parliament is considering imposing a moratorium on biometric surveillance.

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

Will the European Union allow mass surveillance technologies that could be dangerous to our freedoms?

To protect fundamental rights, the AI ​​Law should prohibit any remote use (i.e. wide-scale surveillance) of biometric identification (RBI) in public places by:
• Extending the ban to all private and public entities;
• Ensuring that all uses of biometric identification (real-time or a posteriori) in places accessible to the public are included in the ban;
• Remove exceptions to the ban that independent human rights assessments confirm do not meet existing European fundamental rights standards.
• Put an end to discriminatory or manipulative forms of biometric categorization.
• Properly address the risks associated with emotion recognition.

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

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

Read the May 2022 open letter addressed to MEPs from 53 civil society organisations.

May 10, 2022