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Mass biometric surveillance in the EU: private sector opportunity or tightening restrictions?

Mass biometric surveillance in the EU: private sector opportunity or tightening restrictions?

The Council of the EU intends to simplify rules around the use of mass biometric surveillance by law enforcement and make it possible for private actors to provide such services to police forces, even expanding the scenarios under which systems can be used according to the proposed Artificial Intelligence Act, reports Statewatch.

The monitoring organization noticed the changes in a progress report on the overall Artificial Intelligence Act. However, Slovenia, which holds the presidency of the Council of the EU in 2021, has circulated a compromise on the wording.

Statewatch lays out the texts to highlight the changes, such as the bold type here:

“Concerning the use of ‘real-time’ remote biometric identification systems in publicly accessible spaces by law enforcement authorities, it has been clarified that such systems could also be used by other actors, acting on behalf of law enforcement authorities

“…the objectives for which law enforcement should be allowed to use ‘real-time’ remote biometric identification, as well the related authorisation process, have been extended.”

Whereas the latest compromise text contains: “the use of ‘real-time’ remote biometric identification systems in publicly accessible spaces by law enforcement authorities or on their behalf for the purpose of law enforcement [is prohibited], unless and in as far as such use is strictly necessary for one of the following objectives:

(i) the targeted search for specific potential victims of crime, including missing children;

(ii) the prevention of a specific and substantial and imminent threat to the critical infrastructure, life, health or physical safety of natural persons or of a terrorist attack.”

While the Council of the EU may want to simplify and expand the use of biometric mass surveillance, there are growing calls for an outright ban, or the limiting rather than expanding of its usage scenarios.

The latest of those calls comes from European Digital Rights (EDRi) and 119 civil society organizations, who published a joint statement on the importance of foregrounding human rights in the AI Act. The signatories, including Access Now and Amnesty International, want the AI Act to take a future-proof approach to regulation and prohibit system posing unacceptable risk. Their letter argues that law enforcement authorities should be prohibited from using forensic remote biometric identification.

Germany’s incoming coalition government is calling for a ban, while even the European Data Protection Supervisor believes the exemptions to a ban still imply mass surveillance.

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