Petition urges EU regulators to ban biometric mass surveillance

Digital rights advocates say tools such as facial recognition bring 'internet-style omnipresent tracking to the offline world'

A face being identified using AI

The European Union (EU) should ban biometric mass surveillance tools such as facial recognition when it lays out its plans to regulate artificial intelligence (AI), a coalition of privacy advocates have claimed.

The coalition, which includes Reclaim Your Face, European Digital Rights (EDRi), Privacy International, and numerous other non-profits, has made its demands official by launching a petition aimed at pressuring the EU to reconsider its stance on surveillance using biometric technology.

The petition warns of numerous potential outcomes of not regulating the technology, such as employers monitoring facial expressions of job candidates in order to decide if they’re fit for the position, or insurance companies increasing premiums based on dress codes.

The coalition listed various examples of uses of biometric mass surveillance in EU member states including France and Serbia, which had violated EU data protection law as well as “unduly restricted people‘s rights including their privacy, right to free speech, right to protest and not to be discriminated against”. 

According to EDRi member Linus Neumann, biometrics used in mass surveillance bring “'internet-style' omnipresent tracking to the offline world”, leading to the eradication of “the few remaining refuges of privacy”.

Privacy International campaigns officer Caitlin Bishop told IT Pro that the organisation "is extremely concerned with the increasing uptake of biometric mass surveillance around the world".

"Forms of biometric mass surveillance we've already seen in use, such as live facial recognition at protests, pose serious threats to people's fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to protest - rights which are the bedrock of democracy," she said.

"Biometric mass surveillance is creeping out of science fiction and in to the real world - we're asking the EU to take a stand and put it back where it belongs."

In order to succeed, the petition needs to be signed by at least one million supporters in at least seven EU member states during the next year. If achieved, the European Commission (EC) will be obliged to respond to the petition by opening a debate among the Members of the European Parliament.

Last year, the EC considered a ban on the use of facial recognition in public spaces in public spaces in order to buy time to assess risks and develop legislation. However, it’s expected to revise its laws on AI, including facial recognition, later this year.

Last August, the UK’s Court of Appeal declared the use of facial recognition technology for law enforcement purposes unlawful because it violates the fundamental right to privacy.

As of the time of publication, the petition has been signed by almost 3,500 people.

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