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EU lawmakers and civil society call on Member States for a strong ban on biometric mass surveillance as the negotiations on the AI Act come to a close

European Parliament Freedom, democracy and transparency Press releases

Yesterday, several EU parliament negotiators on the AI Act from Socialists and Democrats, Greens/EFA, Renew and The Left groups gathered in the European Parliament to discuss how far the AI Act should go in banning Biometric Mass Surveillance in Europa. They were joined by 20 NGOs coming from all over the EU, representing a “Reclaim Your Face” coalition of 76 NGOs in favour of a strong ban.

The event, co-hosted by a cross-group coalition of 10 Members of the European Parliament, including co-Rapporteur Brando Benifei, ended with several commitments not to agree to an AI Act trilogue agreement which doesn’t include a ban on BMS. The speakers covered different areas which they argued ought to be in the scope of the ban: remote biometric recognition – whether for law enforcement or border control purposes – but also emotion and gender categorisation, polygraphs, behavioural analysis and crowd control. The impact of biometric mass surveillance on democracy, on fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression, and specific communities such as people on the move was highlighted. All speakers concurred about the need to ban the practise, and that this ban should take a strict and ambitious form.

The NGOs present were coming from Germany, France, Czechia, Serbia, Portugal, Greece, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Belgium, Italy and Croatia, on top of the umbrella organisation EDRi. They were accompanied by activists, artists and the association Football Supporters Europe. NGOs provided perspectives from their Member State regarding existing practices and technologies being deployed, and categorically called for a strong ban.

MEP Patrick Breyer, who moderated the event, said:

“We know of the chilling effect that monitoring anybody would have on our society. People who constantly feel watched cannot freely and courageously stand up for their rights and for a just society. This is not the diverse society I want to live in, and in which I want my child to grow up!”

Brando Benifei (S&D IMCO Rapporteur):

“In the Parliament, knowing that the Council has a very different stance, we need to be very comprehensive in the ban we propose, and include all the different aspects: public and private, ‘real time’ and ‘ex post’, etc. Today there are two different loopholes in the ‘ban’ proposed by the Commission: private spaces and ‘ex-post’ recognition are not covered, but there are also exceptions regarding some criminal investigations and prosecutions. We should – and I will do my best to – have a complete ban in the Parliament. We need to make a public case/debate of this, because people need to know what we are trying to defend against control and fake security pushed by the governments.”

Svenja Hahn (Renew IMCO shadow):

“This is a defining question of our society – what kind of society do we want to be. There is broad consensus in the EU that we do not want to go in the direction of authoritarian regimes such as China, Iran and Russia. We see that in these countries that AI is strategically used for repression, social scoring, human rights violations, against minorities, total surveillance… this is something that should be a red line for us, and I hear everyone saying that. But I see worrying things in Europe, such as governments using these technologies claiming to have good intentions, to do it for something they deem a qualified reason. But I think the line is very thin. Democracy cannot be taken for granted inside the EU. We currently have countries which are working against democratic principles inside the Union, and [AI and BMS] are powerful tools. We cannot take for granted that our democracies are forever there, and forever strong, and cannot be undermined.

I will not take it for granted that [the ban on BMS] will make it in the final legislation, because it is the Member States that want these tools, to be used for what they call ‘good causes’. We are working on the Parliament’s position, but what we really need now is pressure on Member States. [To NGOs:] we will need you help in the Member States to raise the public awareness. So far it is only Germany that is actually against it [in the Council] because it is in the government agreement.”

Birgit Sippel (S&D LIBE coordinator):

“We must demand a ban on the use of biometric surveillance systems. […] Our EU centralised information systems (SIS, VIS, Eurodac and others) are initially excluded from the scope of the AI Act, and this loophole in Article 83 should be deleted.

Many here say that [BMS] is not something we want for our future – but it is already happening. We cannot allow for further deploying AI systems to automate and normalise a culture of suspicion against persons. We will all fight so that the Parliament has a strong position on that. And let me be very clear: even if we could have systems without any error rates, we cannot accept them.”

Sergey Lagodinsky (Greens/EFA LIBE shadow):

“There is no ‘free space’ that is surveilled, and there is no civil society which is ‘free’ if it is under surveillance. BMS is thus both an individual problem for civil rights, and a societal problem for the NGOs which are so instrumental for our democracy.

Even our conservative friends [Renew MEPs] agree that we need a ban on mass surveillance in the AI Act; there is no agreement yet with them about the fact that we need a catalogue. This is the new field of battle.”

An audio recording is available

The NGOs which gave presentations were, in order of appearance: European Digital Rights (EU, at 05:06), Chaos Computer Club (DE, at 11:14), Citizen D (SI, at 15:34), Bits of Freedom (NL, at 20:17), La Quadrature Du Net (FR, at 26:18).

The MEPs were, in order of appearance: Brando Benifei (33:18), Kim van Sparrentak (39:40), Svenja Hahn (43:00), Petar Vitanov (47:59), Sergey Lagodinsky (52:43), Karen Melchior (57:11), Birgit Sippel (1:00:50), Cornelia Ernst (read-out by Patrick Breyer, 1:05:36). The ECR LIBE shadow, MEP Rob Rooken, was in the audience and gave his support to an ambitious ban too (1:07:10).