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UN rights chief: Remote biometric surveillance of protests brings ‘unacceptable risks’

UN rights chief: Remote biometric surveillance of protests brings ‘unacceptable risks’

Remote biometric surveillance systems are raising “serious concerns,” the United Nations rights chief says in a newly issued set of recommendations for the European Union’s Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act).

In an open letter published Wednesday, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk shared his opinions on the legislation, which is currently being debated by European policymakers. In the letter, Türk expresses worry over the impact powerful AI surveillance systems have on human rights across the globe.

“Remote biometric surveillance systems, in particular, raise serious concerns with regard to their proportionality, given their highly intrusive nature and broad impact on large numbers of people,” writes Türk. “For example, law enforcement’s use of facial recognition tools scanning crowds or protests is indiscriminate, bringing about unacceptable risk to human rights.”

This week, Euractiv reported that the European Parliament is considering allowing limited uses of remote biometric identification through facial recognition in real-time, in exchange for concessions in other areas. Previous drafts of the legislation put limits on the technology, allowing its use only in search for missing persons, terrorists and major crime suspects.

The rights commissioner also expressed support for banning systems that process biometric data to categorize people according to the color of their skin, gender, or other protected characteristics. In addition, a ban should be in place for AI systems that recognize emotions and predict crime, as well as untargeted scraping tools used for building facial recognition databases.

“Such tools entail dangerous accuracy issues, often due to a lack of scientific grounding, and are deeply intrusive,” says Türk. “They threaten to systematically undermine human rights, in particular due process and judicial guarantees.”

The commissioner’s office has also expressed concern at a proposal to allow companies to self-determine if their AI systems belong to a high-risk category – one of three levels the regulation assigns to AI applications based on the potential danger they pose. Such a model could end up undermining the benefits of the AI Act, notes Türk.

In June, the EU Parliament approved the AI Act for its next phase, which includes trialogue negotiations between the EU Parliament, the EU Council of Ministers representing European governments, and the European Commission.

The act is currently in its fifth round of trilogue negotiations but the regulation still has a long way to go. Biometric surveillance may remain a point of contention for lawmakers until the very last minute. This week, Council members said that they want more exemptions for biometric surveillance tied to national security but a “hard ban” on its use on public places. In return, the AI Act will beef up restrictions on face scraping platforms.

EU lawmakers are hoping that the final draft of the landmark will be adopted sometime in 2025.

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