As the European Commission is preparing new laws on Artificial Intelligence, a growing coalition of digital and human rights organisations led by European Digital Rights (EDRi) warns of the many dangers of biometric mass surveillance on our freedom and dignity. The Reclaim Your Face coalition is demanding a ban on the use of harmful AI such as biometric mass surveillance by launching a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) today. The ECI is a unique tool the EU puts at the disposal of European citizens to organise and collectively demand new legislative frameworks.
Biometric data are data about our bodies and behaviours, which can divulge sensitive information about who we are. For example, our faces can be used for facial recognition to make a prediction or assessment about us – and so can our eyes, veins, voices, the way we walk or type on a keyboard, and much more.
Governments, police forces and corporations are using recording devices (like CCTV cameras) and facial recognition software to gather our unique biometric data. They track us by using our unique characteristics in order to permanently identify each of us. The blanket capture of every person’s biometric data in public spaces like parks, train stations and shops simply for trying to live our lives is biometric mass surveillance.
The processing of any biometric data is already prohibited in the EU. However, EU law allows some very problematic exceptions to this general prohibition. Powerful actors take advantage of this legal confusion by introducing – outside of democratic oversight – these harmful technologies in our public spaces, dehumanising and treating us all as walking barcodes.
“Europeans have a proud and diverse history of rising up against injustice: the fight for universal suffrage, the Solidarno (Solidarity) workers’ movement, and so much more. ść Today, we launch a 1-million person petition that asks the EU to protect everyone from the harms of facial recognition and other biometric mass surveillance. By doing this, the Reclaim Your Face campaign fights for a future where people can live freely, express, think and organise without fear.”, says Ella Jakubowska from European Digital Rights.
The coalition has already built up evidence of vast and systemic abuses of people’s biometric data across Europe and is successfully challenging such deployments. Serbian authorities are surveilling the population on the streets of Belgrade. Italian authorities targeted migrant communities with biometric surveillance systems in the city of Como, and despite the fact that the practice was declared illegal, they are now trying to introduce it in other cities. In Greece, national authorities are investigating the use of biometric surveillance during police stops. In France, civil society fought in court the use of biometric mass surveillance targeting high schools and protesters. In the Netherlands, national authorities criticised biometric mass surveillance in supermarkets. The Reclaim Your Face coalition has been essential in challenging these investigations. For example Homo Digitalis triggered data protection investigations in Greece and Bits of Freedom supported statements by national authorities against biometric mass surveillance in the Netherlands.
However, it has become clear that we need to act united, across countries, at European level. The ECI represents the voice of those who oppose a dystopian future and instead want a future in which choices are made by us, not by algorithms, in which our bodies belong to us, in which we are not discriminated against based on how we look, how much money we have, or where we are from, and in which we have equity and justice.
The ECI needs to collect 1 million signatures in at least 7 EU countries during the next year. Succeeding will oblige the European Commission to respond to our formal demand for a new law and open a debate among the Members of the European Parliament.
This is a truly unique opportunity for all EU citizens to request a law that protects them by outlawing biometric surveillance practices in public spaces. A ban is our only hope to prevent harms that arise with the identification and judgment of people based on their face, body, features and behaviour.
European citizens have a historical chance to stop the harm before biometric mass surveillance becomes permanent in our society.