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Czech data protection authorities question police use of facial recognition

Czech data protection authorities question police use of facial recognition

Police use of facial recognition technology has come under the scrutiny of data protection authorities in another country, this time Czechia.

The Czech Office for Personal Data Protection has asked the local police for information on the facial recognition system that has been in trial operation for almost a year. One of the main issues highlighted is that the police did not bother to consult the data protection office during its testing, according to the office spokesperson Milan Řepka.

“We are currently assessing the matter,” Řepka told news outlet Novinky.cz.

The news comes after non-profit organization Iuridicum Remedium (IuRe) brought attention to the system, named DOP (Digitálních podob osob) in July, revealing that it is operated based on internal instructions of the Chief of Police which were not made public.

The system was supplied by Czech IT infrastructure company Autocont and has been in operation since August 2022, according to materials obtained by the NGO through a Freedom of Information Access (FOIA) request. The price tag for the system was 1,400,000 Czech korunas (around US$63,500) excluding VAT, a contract dating from 2020 shows. The documents did not reveal the maker of the facial recognition software.

The facial recognition system relies on images from government identity card and travel document registers. In its report, the organization warns about the system’s privacy implications, adding that it could also be used for monitoring people’s activities, including those online.

The Czech police have defended the use of the system referring to Section 66a of the Police Act which allows retroactive comparison of images with photographs from government sources such as ID records.

“The DPO system is used for comparing retrospectively ad hoc faces from specific serious cases and for identifying dead people of unknown identity,” police spokesperson Jakub Vinčálek clarified for local outlet Idnes.cz in July.

But local lawyers are questioning whether the system is exceeding the police’s legal authorities.

IuRe attorney Jan Vobořil argues that the law only covers the use of images but not biometric identification. Other legal experts such as Ondřej Preuss say that the mass use of CCTV surveillance requires a new legal framework, even if the images are only used by the facial recognition system retroactively. The issue is also attracting scrutiny from the Czech Pirate Party.

Meanwhile, the Czech Office for Personal Data Protection noted that it has been working on a new methodology for camera systems since April of this year.

“The document is not yet valid, it is still in the process of evaluating comments,” says spokesman Řepka.

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