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Biometric mass surveillance: Let’s not follow Russia’s example!

European Parliament Freedom, democracy and transparency

Yesterday was the deadline to table amendments to the LIBE/IMCO report on the AI Act. This is the proposal by the Parliament’s competent committees to change the Commission’s original proposal on “Harmonised rules on Artificial Intelligence”; members of these committees will next vote on compromises based on the proposed amendments, following which the text will be voted on in plenary (likely not before the end of 2022).

My group made sure that a strong ban on biometric mass surveillance will be considered. This is a demand I have consistently been making throughout my mandate, but the need and urgency for such a ban became even clearer this month, after I met with Alexander Isavnin.

Alexander is a Russian Pirate living near Moscow. In the context of a discussion about Russia’s crackdown on pro-peace activists in the context of the war on Ukraine, he unfolded for me the development of facial recognition systems in Russia. Excerpts of the discussion can be viewed here:

  • He described how facial recognition systems, which had been introduced at the entrance of metro stations under the pretext of making life easier (“pay with your face”), are now being used to identify, track and even arrest dissidents – be it members of the Communist party, citizens protesting for the release of Alexeï Navalny, or people protesting against the Ukraine war.
  • He also described how a whole surveillance system was implemented in the city a few years ago, under the guise of “fighting terrorism”, and was now used against dissidents. The government used a “safe city” narrative similar to the ones encountered in Europe (such as in France, Italy, Spain, Malta, and Germany). The rise of the far-right in Europe should alert us to the risk that in our countries too, such systems can easily be repurposed to fit the agenda of the government in place. We use the same technology as the Russians, the only difference is that our governments are not yet as bad?
  • Similarly, under a narrative of ‘convenience’ and ‘comfort’, biometric lock systems have been installed at the entrance of many apartment blocks in the city. They happen to also send their feed to a centralised data center. With these cameras-equipped ‘smart locks’, you may not need a key to enter your building. The downside is that this allows the government to identify you remotely by comparing faces captured in different places – knowing in which apartment building an anonymous protester lives is enough for reliable identification. “I think this is a way this technology could infiltrate the EU”, says Alexander; and in this case “it is not about state-run video-surveillance, it’s about improving safety and comfort for citizens, but all information could then be passed onto [surveillance agencies and the police]”. This is indeed a worry highlighted in the Greens/EFA-funded 2021 report on “Biometric and Behavioural Mass Surveillance in EU Member States”.

The AI Act as proposed by the Commission would allow the use of biometric surveillance systems by the police, and some in the European Parliament think this is okay. Alexander’s message to us Europeans is: “don’t allows this, don’t try to exchange your freedom for safety – in most cases your freedom is your safety”.

I agree that we should not let this happen in Europe. Biometric mass surveillance is already used (1600 times per day by FR police in 2021, according to LQDN). See our Greens/EFA documentary trip to Italy, , where we went to meet the activists that ended biometric mass surveillance in Italy. Have also a look at our recent myth-buster on facial recognition, in which we explain why 5 of the claims put forward by other Groups about the benefits of facial recognition are incorrect. Sign the European Citizens Initiative calling for a ban on biometric mass surveillance practices here: https://reclaimyourface.eu/