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Germany’s live facial recognition system could be unconstitutional: Data watchdog

Germany’s live facial recognition system could be unconstitutional: Data watchdog

A real-time facial recognition system used by German police to track criminals has reportedly been deployed without the knowledge of the local data protection agency and could be against the country’s constitution.

The police in the German state of Saxony have been using a surveillance system called Personal Identification System (PerIS), created by Opto Precision. The system was first introduced as a pilot project in 2019 to combat serious cross-border crime. Details of the system, however, have been kept under wraps until March when a parliamentary inquiry uncovered its deployment. The system was also used in Berlin, sparking criticism from legal experts and lawmakers.

Responding to these complaints, Saxony’s data protection office said that the responsible police station did not submit a data protection impact assessment on PerIS. The agency is now considering an investigation with the Saxon Ministry of the Interior, German news site Netzpolitik reported last week.

“In view of the Federal Constitutional Court’s statements on preventive measures for automated license plate recognition, there should be no doubt that real-time biometric processing and a live comparison of the facial images of people who pass a surveillance camera in public spaces are against the Constitution,” the office writes, according to a machine translation from German.

Saxony’s data protection office was responding to a complaint lodged by Saxony’s Pirate Party.

In its letter, published in May, the party warns that biometric systems are “incredibly error-prone and a disproportionate interference with everyone’s civil liberties” The legal act that allowed the use of biometric video surveillance to prevent cross-border crime has also expired, it added.

“Saxony is a nucleus for dangerous surveillance mechanisms. However, the legal regulations for biometric video surveillance expired at the end of 2023,” says The Pirate Party’s Anne Herpertz.

The Pirate Party also lodged a similar complaint with Berlin’s data protection office. The system has been used in the city on an “administrative assistance basis,” according to authorities. Earlier this year, the Berlin prosecutor’s office argued that the system’s use does not constitute comprehensive surveillance.

The system records license plates of passing vehicles as well as facial images of drivers and passengers and can reportedly process facial images “with a time delay of a few seconds.” All people recorded in the area are compared with images of suspects from a specific investigation.

The German Ministry of the Interior has previously noted that automatic biometric data is the exception and not the rule in the use of PerIS and can only be carried out if the legal requirements are met.

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