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EU parliamentary group maps biometric mass surveillance across bloc, calls for ban

EU parliamentary group maps biometric mass surveillance across bloc, calls for ban

A new interactive world map links projects involving biometric and behavioral mass surveillance in the EU and their providers worldwide. It has been created as part of a report into the known uses of remote biometric identification – public and private – in the bloc as a dossier to serve as a warning against projects running unchecked and becoming biometric mass surveillance.

Biometric and Behavioural Mass Surveillance in EU Member States’ was commissioned by the Greens/EFA parliamentary group, the fourth-largest grouping in the European Parliament. It spans case studies across the continent where (allegedly) privacy-infringing technologies have already been installed in cities or entire countries.

The group wants a ban on biometric surveillance. It cautions against the ‘fait accompli’ approach to biometric surveillance where permission is sought after a pilot, or instances where technologies are brought in for reasons such as tracking migrants across border ‘hot spots’ meaning certain vulnerable groups are specifically targeted. The report also warns of the possibility of surveillance systems developed by authoritarian states being imported into Europe.

The map shows clusters of projects, particularly in the Low Countries, Hungary and France with links reaching to China, the West Coast U.S. and Japan as well as European biometrics firms. NGOs and research centers are also included. A hybrid version of the report integrates with the map.

The report covers case studies such as Berlin’s Südkreuz railway station, Hungary’s Dragonfly project, facial recognition at Brussels Airport, the Nice Smart City projects to examine the legal bases for surveillance (or lack thereof) and to show how a narrative of success is built from projects that fail to reach their objectives.

Speakers at the launch discussed the lack of evidence that CCTV – with or without facial recognition – is effective in preventing crime, meaning many projects across the bloc are being built without any grounding.

“The security argument misses another thing – it misses that citizens need not only to be protected from private persons, but also from public institutions,” said Jérémy Grosman, a researcher in ethics of technology at the Research Centre in Information, Law and Society (CRIDS) of the University of Namur speaking at the launch of the paper.

“Here the argument would be that public institutions are less stable than technical systems, so I might have trust in my government today, but no trust in my government tomorrow. The issue is to think through the relative asymmetry between the power that a democratic state has, and the power of its citizens. And I think that’s how we should predictively think where the limits need to be set.”

Grosman said biometric surveillance technologies increase the asymmetry, and; “This asymmetry puts democratic society in tension with the security imperatives.”

Also speaking at the report launch, MEP Patrick Breyer criticized the EU’s approach: “First we see the development of these technologies, and that’s actively supported by the European Union and apparently with no ethical considerations because they just argue ‘well, it’s only research,’ but then we don’t have any control over where these technologies are used and sold.”

Breyer also believes the technologies are being developed in secret and has sued the European Commission for information on the iBorder project. Breyer said the Commission has refused to release the legal or ethical assessments or results of the study. “I’m happy to announce in public for the first time today that we’ll have a judgement on the 15th December – so that could mean more transparency about the use and research of surveillance in the future.”

Earlier in October, the European Parliament voted to reject an attempt to remove the call for a ban on biometric mass surveillance.

The same day as the Greens/EFA report was released, the European Association for Biometrics (EAB) announced a talk called ‘What does the EU AI regulation mean for the biometrics community?’.

The event on the 2 November will examine aspects of the EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act including the regulation’s classification rules and procedure for conformity assessment.

“Biometric identification is the most prominent and most complex application domain within the scope of the proposed EU AI regulation. The regulation will prohibit certain use cases of AI-/ML-based biometric identification systems, and classify others as high-risk,” says the group.

Frontex biometric border technology study closes

In the latest example of biometric research backed by the EU, the ‘Technology Foresight on Biometrics for the Future of Travel’ research study by Frontex, the EU border agency, has now closed. The final report is expected in the first half of 2022, but the latest newsletter provides some insight.

The project began in January 2021 and activities ran until September, looking into short-, medium- and long-term requirements for biometric technologies for the borders of the European Union.

Previous updates provided insight into progress including developing a taxonomy of biometric technologies. The latest announcement had identified the five key ‘clusters’ for biometric technologies. In their own language, these are: infrared face recognition, 3D face recognition, contactless friction ridge recognition (also known as fingerprints), iris recognition in the NIR spectrum and iris recognition in the visible spectrum.

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