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UN High Commissioner says facial recognition could lead to destruction of privacy

UN High Commissioner says facial recognition could lead to destruction of privacy

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has touted the potential negative impact of facial recognition systems, saying these could lead to “mass surveillance of our public spaces, destroying any concept of privacy.”

The strong statement comes as the EU’s AI Act, which aims to introduce a formal common regulatory and legal framework for governing artificial intelligence, is currently set to undergo negotiations between the EU Parliament, the EU Council of Ministers, European governments, and the European Commission.

The Act is set to come into force in 2025 and will include a total ban on real-time biometric surveillance, emotion recognition and predictive policing systems, and significant limitations on retrospective facial recognition use.

The comments came as part of a broader speech on the dangers of AI, touching on the possibility of its potential to strengthen authoritarian governance, operate lethal autonomous weapons, or further existing systemic bias.

Though exact uses of facial recognition were not highlighted specifically in the speech, Türk said attention was required in areas where there is “heightened risk of abuse of power or privacy intrusions,” including justice, law enforcement, migration, social protection, or financial services.

The Commissioner also suggested that it might be worthwhile to create an international advisory body for technologies considered to be “particularly high-risk,” which could work on cross-border regulatory standards.

In addition, Türk issued stern warnings about letting “the AI industry itself assert that self-regulation is sufficient, or to claim that it should be for them to define the applicable legal framework.”

The Commissioner  pointed to how social media platforms have been regulated in the past as an example of the previous failure of self-regulation.

However, the Commissioner did acknowledge that though input from the industry is important, “it is essential that the full democratic process – laws shaped by all stakeholders – is brought to bear, on an issue in which all people, everywhere, will be affected far into the future.”

Though facial recognition is legal in the EU, and has been used at a number of large events, EU lawmakers have been issuing warnings against abuses of the technology for some time.

In a recent set of The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) guidelines, individual member states were told to provide a legal basis for any form of processing biometric data by law enforcement agencies using facial recognition, according to the document.

It’s not just Türk that is giving dire warnings about the potential risks of AI and real-time surveillance ahead of the AI Act becoming final.

Sarah Chander, senior policy adviser, EDRi, in a comment article in EuroNews said that: “From the use of facial recognition to identify people as they freely move in public places to predictive policing systems to decide who is a criminal before they commit crimes, AI unveils the possibility for governments to infringe on freedoms in new, harmful ways.”

Chandler pointed to alleged “unchecked police power in France” saying “we cannot ignore the descent into a state of heightened surveillance and violence enacted by police.”

The ultimate approach which is taken by the EU could end up being very impactful worldwide on the future of biometric surveillance.

Some in the EU are reportedly hoping that the AI Act will influence tech policy globally, by forming “new international standards.”

This could be comparable to how the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has served as an inspiration for data policy in Brazil and India.

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