EU privacy watchdogs call for facial recognition ban in public spaces

The EDPB and EDPS claim a ban is needed if we want to preserve our freedoms and create a human-centric legal framework for AI

European privacy watchdogs have called for a ban on the use of facial recognition in public spaces, pointing to the "extremely high" risks to privacy.

The joint recommendation, which comes from the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), also urged the bloc to prohibit the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to “infer emotions” or for “any type of social scoring”.

The recommendation comes in response to proposals from the European Commission (EC) on the harmonisation of artificial intelligence rules, which places restrictions on the use of live facial recognition in public places by law enforcement, but does not outright ban it. 

The EDPB and EDPS claim the bill doesn't go far enough and are calling for a general ban on any use of AI for automated recognition of human features in publicly accessible spaces, "such as recognition of faces, gait, fingerprints, DNA, voice, keystrokes and other biometric or behavioural signals, in any context."

The watchdogs, which are responsible for ensuring EU institutions stick to the EU's data protection rules, also claim it should be illegal for AI systems to use biometrics to categorise people "into clusters based on ethnicity, gender, political or sexual orientation," or other types of classification under which they could be discriminated against. 

Such practices "interfere with fundamental rights and freedoms to such an extent that they may call into question the essence of these rights and freedoms," the heads of the EDPB and EDPS said in a statement. 

“Deploying remote biometric identification in publicly accessible spaces means the end of anonymity in those places," they continued.

"This calls for an immediate application of the precautionary approach. 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. The proposed regulation should also prohibit any type of use of AI for social scoring, as it is against the EU fundamental values and can lead to discrimination.”

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While many have welcomed the EC's AI regulations as a step in the right direction that sets Europe on a different path to the US and China, privacy campaigners, such as the European Digital Rights (EDRi) advocacy network, have also warned that the rules leave the door open for discriminatory surveillance.

"Today's opinion is clear proof, from the EU's top data protection regulators, that facial recognition in publicly accessible spaces is a grave and disproportionate intrusion into people's rights and freedoms," EDRi policy adviser Ella Jakubowska said.

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