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UN experts call for ‘urgent’ regulation of biometric surveillance

UN experts call for ‘urgent’ regulation of biometric surveillance

Biometric surveillance systems and other emerging AI-based technologies are increasingly being used “in sensitive contexts,” without individuals’ knowledge or consent, a group of United Nations’ special rapporteurs and other human rights experts have said in a public statement.

The group called for more transparency, oversight, and regulation over these technologies, particularly over targeted surveillance and spyware aimed at activists and journalists, often used on the pretexts of national security and counter-terrorism.

It also warned of large-scale data collection, including biometric data, for surveillance technologies not directly related to identification. “Urgent and strict regulatory red lines” are needed for technologies that claim to perform emotional or gender recognition, their statement reads.

“Specific technologies and applications should be avoided altogether where the regulation of human rights complaints is not possible,” the experts said. “Both industry and States must be held accountable, including for their economic, social, environmental, and human rights impacts.”

The experts are part of the so-called Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council which gathers independent specialists. The group includes UN Special Rapporteurs Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin and Irene Khan. The statement was released in preparation for RightsCon, a human rights and technology summit that will be held from 5 to 8 June 2023 in Costa Rica.

In March, Ní Aoláin, the UN human rights advisor on countering terrorism, presented a report to the UN warning of the rise of biometric surveillance. The report notes that biometric tools have been used for legitimate public interest purposes but they have also been employed for “gross human rights violations, atrocity crimes and oppressive and authoritarian regimes.”

The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published another report in September last year, highlighting the rise of surveillance, the spread of smart cities, digital IDs, and the proliferation of large-scale data collection systems.

How to treat public facial recognition systems has been one of the major points of contention in devising the EU’s AI Act.

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