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EU Parliament approves AI Act amid heated biometrics debates

EU Parliament approves AI Act amid heated biometrics debates

The European Union Artificial Intelligence Act entered its final phase on Wednesday after the European Parliament adopted its position on the landmark legislation.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to support a full ban on real-time biometric surveillance, emotion recognition and predictive policing systems with 499 votes in favor, 28 against and 93 abstentions.

They also expanded the list of prohibited AI practices such as biometric categorization systems using sensitive characteristics (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, political orientation) and untargeted scraping of facial images from the internet or CCTV footage to create facial recognition databases.

“All eyes are on us today,” said EU Co-rapporteur Brando Benifei after the vote. “While Big Tech companies are sounding the alarm over their own creations, Europe has gone ahead and proposed a concrete response to the risks AI is starting to pose.”

The AI Act’s long road ahead

The next step for the first comprehensive AI law will be negotiations between the EU Parliament, the EU Council of Ministers, representing European governments, and the European Commission known as the trilogues. The Act will likely come into effect sometime after 2025.

Ultimately, the EU is hoping its AI Act will serve as a model for global AI regulation similar to how General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) affected policies in countries such as Japan and Brazil.

In an interview with the BBC after the European Parliament vote, EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said AI regulation needs to be a “global affair.” The European Commission’s executive vice president says that consensus among “like-minded” countries should be prioritized before getting more jurisdictions on board, such as China.

“Let’s start working on a UN approach. But we shouldn’t hold our breath,” she says.

Vestager also notes that facial recognition systems should be put in “strict guardrails” so that it is not used in real-time, but only in specific cases such as terrorism or missing children.

Industry organizations such as Digital Europe have responded to the EU Parliament vote by expressing concern over two additional assessments that AI innovators will have to complete.

“AI innovators cannot afford lengthy delays nor legal uncertainty,” the organization says in a release. “Companies in every Member State need access to a sandbox to facilitate the risk classification process. They will also need a sufficiently long transition period to allow for the development of harmonised standards, with SME participation.”

The battle over biometric surveillance

Remote biometric identification was among the most controversial AI applications under debate before the Wednesday vote. Over the past month, parliamentary committee members have attempted to introduce last-minute changes to the draft legislation which was green-lighted in May.

The center-right European People’s Party unsuccessfully tried to introduce exceptions for real-time use of facial recognition in circumstances such as terrorist attacks or missing people. This sparked heated resistance among liberal and progressive lawmakers and rights groups, Euractiv reports.

On Tuesday, Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer accused European lawmakers supporting biometric surveillance of trying to “hand authoritarian governments of the present and the future an unprecedented weapon of oppression.”

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International also expressed support for bans on remote biometric identification, arguing that facial recognition technology is invasive, and amplifies racist and discriminatory law enforcement, including stop-and-search practices. In a Tuesday statement, the non-governmental organization called for limiting the export of EU-made facial recognition technology used for surveillance.

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