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Privacy advocates urge EU to prohibit ‘biometric mass surveillance’ with AI Act

MEPs oppose biometric attendance record plans
Privacy advocates urge EU to prohibit ‘biometric mass surveillance’ with AI Act

European Digital Rights (EDRi) and 52 other organizations have written to the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to call for the ban of remote biometric identification (RBI) systems like facial recognition in publicly accessible spaces.

The open letter defines remote biometric identification technology as “one of the greatest threats to fundamental rights and democracy that we have ever seen,” claiming it “destroys the possibility of anonymity in public.”

The document then quotes real-world examples in which biometric surveillance was used to limit individuals’ freedom, including the alleged persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China.

However, the organizations also said that some governments, pushed by privacy advocates, have taken steps against facial recognition or other forms of biometric mass surveillance.

For context, last October, the European Greens/EFA parliamentary group released an interactive world map linking projects involving biometric and behavioral mass surveillance in the EU and their providers worldwide and calling for a ban on such systems. EU officials have also called for the Act to be strengthened.

Despite these initial efforts, however, EDRi and the other organizations behind the open letter say a wider legal framework is needed at a European level to prevent biometric surveillance.

To do so, they have called for amendments to Article 5(1)(d) of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act to extend the scope of the prohibition to cover all private as well as public actors. Also, for all uses of RBI (whether real-time or forensic) in publicly-accessible spaces to be included in the prohibition, and for the exceptions to the prohibition to be deleted.

“The EU aims to create an ‘ecosystem of trust and excellence’ for AI and to be the world leader in trustworthy AI,” reads the letter.

“Accomplishing these aims will mean putting a stop to applications of AI that undermine trust, violate our rights, and turn our public spaces into surveillance nightmares. We can promote AI that really serves people while stamping out the most dangerous applications of this powerful technology.”

Co-signing the open letter are international organizations and groups from various countries around Europe, as well as other countries, and regional advocates.

EU Parliament opposes “biometric attendance register” plans

A substantial majority of MEPs (420, with 202 against and 15 abstentions) have voted against the Parliament’s plans to register their presence by processing their fingerprints.

This is not the first time MEPs have expressed their concerns over the biometric system, but no official decision was made until now.

Specifically, the MEPs called for the development of “an alternative solution that does not involve the processing of biometric data,” such as an electronic attendance register relying on Members’ badges or mobile phones.

“By plotting to fingerprint all Members, the Parliament‘s leadership wanted to place all of us under a general suspicion of fraudulently asking other people to register and claim attendance allowances – without citing a single occurrence of such fraud during the test of a badge-based system,” comments Dr. Patrick Breyer, Member of the European Parliament for the German Pirate Party.

The Article 29 data protection group, which pushed forward the new proposal, stated that as a general rule, the use of biometrics cannot be regarded as a legitimate interest for securing access to buildings.

“The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) did not consider proportionate the use of biometric systems for monitoring staff members’ working time and leave,” explained EDPS Wojciech Wiewiórowsk.

“We considered the processing of biometric data was not necessary in relation to the purpose, because such a purpose could be achieved with less intrusive means, such as by signing in, using attendance sheets, or using clocking in systems via magnetic badges.”

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