UN ‘should follow EC’ in starting to regulate biometrics, artificial intelligence

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The United Nations should follow the European Commission in establishing a regulatory framework for artificial intelligence and biometrics to protect people subject to the technologies, build trust in their use and take the pressure off data scientists to constantly justify the ethics, writes Eleonore Fournier-Tombs of McGill University for The Conversation.

The European Commission (EC) put forward proposals in April 2021 that seek to harmonize rules on artificial intelligence and create mechanisms which Fournier-Tombs likens to the process for seeking approval for a new drug.

Developers of a new high-risk application of AI would have to submit it for regulatory approval. They would also have to provide details on how the models and data are used and how impacts on privacy or discrimination would be addressed.

Areas of risk include biometric identification, categorization and evaluation of the eligibility of people for accessing welfare and services, including in emergency response situations. All of these are areas where the UN is already deploying AI, writes Fournier-Tombs, but without an effective regulatory framework. And as an international organization, any EC regulation would not apply to the UN.

The UN is increasingly active in AI, from the UNHCR’s biometric database for registering millions of refugees and managing aid payments, the World Food Program’s biometric-based food distribution, to higher level projects such as the Centre for Humanitarian Data and UNICEF’s Innovation Labs.

Fournier-Tombs also considers the UN’s partnerships with private companies such as the World Food Program’s 2019 $45 million contract with Palantir, which specialises in data collection and its artificial intelligence modelling. Palantir has partnered with U.S. authorities on projects such as tracking undocumented immigrants in the U.S. These have raised concerns from groups such as Amnesty International which allege human rights violations on the part of Palantir.

The UN does have some methods for overseeing the technical development and implementation of AI. Fournier-Tombs mentions the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Peer Review Framework, but adds that “In the absence of regulation, however, tools such as these, without legal backing, are merely best practices with no means of enforcement.”

Following in the footsteps of the EC’s proposals could help the UN build trust in its agencies’ technology developments and reduce waste as projects are later abandoned, such as the Jetson tool created by the UNHCR for predicting the arrival of internally displaced persons to refugee camps in Somalia.

Fournier-Tombs argues that the EC system will foster trust in the use of AI in situations where it is deployed among extremely vulnerable populations, and will even take away some of the pressure felt by data scientists who must repeatedly justify the ethics of their work for each project.

Further calls for regulation

European civil society groups have been calling on the European Commission to bring in tighter regulation around biometrics and AI. The Reclaim Your Face campaign wants a total ban on indiscriminate, live biometric surveillance.

In the U.S. there have been similar calls for federal regulation on police use of facial recognition technology following multiple instances of mismatches leading to the false identification of Black suspects.

Meanwhile, those working in the humanitarian aspects of biometrics, including UNHCR and WFP projects, believe the technologies being developed for these settings could influence the whole identity industry and international ID systems.

This could make regulation at the UN level even more critical.

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