Police facial recognition use in Belarus, Greece, Myanmar raises rights, data privacy concerns

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Facial recognition software developed by Belarusian software design company LLC Synesis and implemented by the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, as well as by other European companies, is being used to track and identify dissidents in Belarus, reports Kharon.

Kipod uses advanced biometric machine learning algorithms to analyse material from a variety of sources. Synesis was previously sanctioned by the European Union for providing authorities with an AI surveillance platform to track individuals, after which Synesis was restructured and several affiliated companies changed their name.

Nikolai Dedok, a prominent Belarusian protester was arrested last year after reportedly being identified by Kipod’s technology, and proceeded to leak a list of Synesis employees, criticizing them for failing to inform the Belarusian people about the potential dangers of the facial recognition system.

Over 2,400 protest-linked cases have been opened since last summer, according to the Belarusian media, following demonstrations against the president’s re-election. Sanctions were declared against Belarus following the presidential elections.

According to the technology’s website, Kipod is designed for biometric transport security, public safety, epidemiological monitoring and critical infrastructure security, and the system can also track individual or vehicle movements.

Synesis has denied that the technology could be used by the Belarusian government to identify anti-government protesters, however the company’s products are used as the basis of Belarusian surveillance techniques, according to the report. President Lukashenko signed a decree to establish an official system of public safety monitoring via video surveillance, run by a subsidiary of Synesis and built on the Kipod programming platform.

Kipod is also in use in Moscow’s metro system, as well as at filling stations in Ireland and the UK. A Canadian large-scale machinery manufacturer also uses the technology at its Northern Ireland logistics centers.

The use of facial recognition has come under pressure, particularly during the global pandemic, to implement guidelines and regulations in order to increase safer usage and decrease potential biases. Though the European Commission is in the process of developing EU-wide laws, face biometrics use by law enforcement has not been banned in public spaces, and Belarus is not a member of the EU or the Schengen area.

Greek police mobile biometric refugee identification program criticized

Greek police will be equipped with portable, smartphone-like devices capable of capturing biometric information to identify people while on patrol, reports The World. This follows a 2017 Smart Policing plan for around 1000 police officers to use the devices by summer 2021; eventually the devices could be distributed to up to 10,000 officers.

Aimed at scanning faces and fingerprints, one of the project’s goals is to identify third-country nationals who may have overstayed a legal permit in Greece, according to a (Greek language) police document.

Though the devices will be connected to both European and Greek databases, the data collected will not be retained in the system, says a Hellenic Police spokesperson: “…used exclusively for their instantaneous comparison with the existing systems of the Greek Police and will be discarded upon completion of the identification process.”

The plan has been largely criticized by privacy and human rights groups as potentially unlawful under European laws of biometric data processing. The European Commission’s Internal Security Fund (ISF) is funding approximately 75 percent of the project in Greece.

“I am not saying that we should never use new technology in policing activities or law enforcement, in general. What I’m saying is that it’s very important to invest in technologies that are human rights-oriented and that there are legal grounds to use such technologies,” says Eleftherios Chelioudakis, co-founder of Homo Digitales, a digital rights advocacy organization.

Greek police say that the plan will improve working efficiency and officer safety. The organization European Digital Rights (EDRi) launched a petition last year to ban the use of “biometric mass surveillance” and called for more regulations of biometric technologies in Europe. While large U.S. corporations like Microsoft, IBM and Amazon have stated that sales of facial recognition technology to law enforcement will be restricted until there is a federal law regulating its use.

The European Data Protection Authority (EDPA) are currently preparing a set of guidelines for the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement; while the European Commission works on establishing standards for the regulation of AI and biometrics. It is yet unclear how stringent these guidelines may be.

Myanmar junta’s face biometrics capabilities pose rights risk: HRW

In December, Myanmar’s government installed over 300 AI-equipped surveillance cameras across the capital as part of the first phase of the country’s Safe City Initiative. This initiative, which includes both facial recognition and vehicle license plate recognition, went ahead without public consultation, and could be used as a tool of repression according to Human Rights Watch.

Though Huawei is providing some equipment to the initiative, the tech giant has contradicted the statement that the facial recognition and license plate technology in use have been provided by Huawei. Yet, Huawei and Myanmar’s government are previously reported to have signed a contract to partner in implementing the same technology in the city of Mandalay, reportedly costing $1.5 million. The expansion to Mandalay is planned for mid-2021.

“This powerful surveillance system bolsters the Myanmar junta’s increasingly abusive crackdown on demonstrations. The authorities’ ability to identify people on the streets, potentially track their movements and relationships, and intrude into private lives poses a grave risk to anti-coup activists,” says Manny Muang, Asia researcher.

It is unclear exactly what information will be stored or used for, nor who will be able to access the data, but several legal restrictions on law enforcement have been suspended by the junta.

In 2019, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications announced the mandatory biometric data collection when purchasing a new mobile phone; part of a government initiative to create a massive national database. Similarly, uses of the data were not specified, nor transparency about whether the move could be connected to government digital identity plans. Civil society organizations expressed concern over the potential misuse of the systems, while the Myanmar’s Posts and Telecommunications Department replied that a legal framework around biometrics was in development.

Human Rights Watch condemns the use of facial recognition in public spaces due to the direct effect this may have on both collective public and individual behaviour. These concerns come following a military coup in the country on February 1st where protestors clashed with Myanmar’s military junta. Furthermore, there is currently no Myanmar law which covers protection of sensitive or biometric data, according to HRW.

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