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UN says law enforcement should not use biometrics to surveil protestors

UN says law enforcement should not use biometrics to surveil protestors

Law enforcement agencies should not use biometric technology to categorize, profile or remotely identify individuals during protests, the United Nations says in a document outlining how police should approach human rights during demonstrations.

“Facial recognition technologies and other biometric identification technologies must not be utilized to identify or track individuals peacefully participating in a protest,” the document states.

Known as the “Practical toolkit for law enforcement officials to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests,” the document aims to address arbitrary and unlawful surveillance during protests. This includes not just facial and emotional recognition but also the use of CCTV cameras, aerial drones and international mobile subscriber identity-catchers, known as “stingrays.”

“There should be no blanket authorization for the use of digital technologies in the context of peaceful protests,” it notes.

Released in March by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the toolkit aims to supplement an earlier UN Model Protocol for law enforcement published in January.

The toolkit was created after the UN’s Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in July 2022 requesting the development of tools and practices that could help law enforcement officials protect human rights during peaceful protests. It covers issues such as oversight and accountability and provides general principles and guidance.

Law enforcement can use technology to facilitate peaceful assemblies, including estimating the number of attendees, crowd density or likely route of a protest. It can also be used to respond to security threats. However, a clear distinction must be made between these use cases and surveilling protestors that could cause chilling effects and an erosion of democratic participation.

“This means that any decision to record, process or retain information, should be exceptional, subject to a high level of justification, stringent authorization, and based exclusively on the obligation to ensure accountability,” the document says.

A group of  UN officials called for a regulatory crackdown on biometric surveillance last year.

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