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AI Act leaves asylum seekers unprotected, the Balkans collect more migrant biometric data

AI Act leaves asylum seekers unprotected, the Balkans collect more migrant biometric data

European policymakers took another step towards ratifying the landmark AI Act, reaching a provisional deal after a marathon negotiation on Friday. But rights groups are warning that the regulation still has loopholes that leave migrants and asylum seekers without protection from AI biometric systems.

A research article published on the eve of the AI Act’s passage argues that the bloc’s mandatory biometric data collection practices deprive migrants in the Eurozone of agency. The Act will not usher in change for them, critics say.

“There are various exceptions for high-risk systems used in the contexts of national security, law enforcement, and migration, where authorities can often avoid the reach of the Act’s core provisions,” rights organization Algorithm Watch says in a statement.

Among these systems is live facial recognition used to search for crime suspects in public spaces, as well as technology used to recognize the emotions of asylum seekers. The level of protection can be assessed only once the final text of the AI Act is released, the group says.

Rights groups have long been warning about the exclusion of migrants from the protections of the AI Act. The European Council excludes border control areas from the definition of “publicly accessible spaces,” allowing remote biometric surveillance to be used in these areas.

In a report published in September, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a coalition of groups promoting migrant and asylum seekers’ rights, concludes that the increasing overlap of biometric migration and criminal databases has the potential to contribute to the criminalization of migrants.

“These concerns could have been met through increased safeguards and through foregrounding of the rights of people on the move in the Artificial Intelligence Act,” the group writes. “The window for doing so is speeding towards closure at the end of 2023, and the safeguards that will remain for biometric systems and the functioning of large-scale EU IT databases are minimal.”

Biometric monitoring on the Balkan migrant route

European countries may have found another way to avoid responsibility for handling the biometric data of migrants and the AI systems using it  – through outsourcing.

BVNM argues that the EU has been undermining the rights of asylum seekers by outsourcing responsibility for managing applications to third states, particularly those on the Western Balkan migrant route, one of the main migratory paths into Europe.

Balkan countries have been building their own “Balkandac” system, modeling it off the Eurodac (European Dactyloscopy), the EU’s fingerprint database for identifying asylum seekers and irregular border-crossers.

The systems have gained momentum from increased cooperation between countries in the region, including non-EU members such as Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and EU member states and agencies such as Frontex, to decrease migrant flows towards Western Europe. Funding from the EU’s Instruments for Pre-Accession Assistance and bilateral agreements with EU countries have supported these data systems in the Western Balkans.

The biometric data systems, however, are leading to increased securitization in handling migrant flows to the EU, according to BVNM. Aside from increased connection with databases such as Eurodac, which blur immigration and criminal law purposes, the Balkandac systems also lack anti-discrimination safeguards and bypass key data protection principles.

“The possibility for biometric data systems in the Western Balkans to be connected to EU databases pre-accession raises serious concerns regarding the fundamental rights and personal data protection of people on the move,” the report notes.

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