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Historic moment: European Parliament speaks out for the first time in favour of banning biometric mass surveillance in the EU

Artificial Intelligence European Parliament Freedom, democracy and transparency Press releases

Today, the European Parliament by 259:403:30 votes rejected the attempt to remove the call for a ban on biometric mass surveillance, such as by means of facial recognition in public spaces, from the Vitanov report on Artificial Intelligence in criminal law and its use by the police and judicial authorities in criminal matters (A9-0232/2021, par. 31).

Source | Voting analysis

The text „calls on the Commission, therefore, to implement, through legislative and non-legislative means, and if necessary through infringement proceedings, a ban on any processing of biometric data, including facial images, for law enforcement purposes that leads to mass surveillance in publicly accessible spaces; calls further on the Commission to stop funding biometric research or deployment or programmes that are likely to result in indiscriminate mass surveillance in public spaces“.

Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer, shadow rapporteur for the Greens/EFA Group, comments:

“This vote is a historic breakthrough for the movement to prevent a China-style dystopian future of biometric mass surveillance in Europe. There is not a single example of real-time biometric surveillance preventing a terrorist attack or other such events. We must stand up against biometric mass surveillance in our public spaces because these technologies wrongfully report large numbers of innocent citizens, systematically discriminate against under-represented groups and have a chilling effect on a free and diverse society. 

The European Parliament now needs to fight to have this ban implemented in the AI Act! I call on all citizens to increase the pressure on the surveillance-hungry EU governments by signing the European Citizens’ Initiative #ReclaimYourFace.“

In advance of the vote, an open letter sent by 25 MEPs from various political groups had called on their parliamentary colleagues to reject the changes. The final report is expected to be adopted in the evening. 

According to a representative survey conducted by YouGov in 10 EU countries, a majority of Europeans opposes biometric mass surveillance in public spaces. However, in the pending legislative process on regulating “artificial intelligence”, the EU Commission did not propose a ban, which has been widely criticised.

Support by data watchdogs, UN and civil society

Earlier this year the European Data Protection Board and European Data Protection Supervisor called for a „general ban on any use of AI for an automated recognition of human features in publicly accessible spaces“ due to its „resulting in a direct negative effect on the exercise of freedom of expression, of assembly, of association as well as freedom of movement“.

More than 200 civil society organizations, activists, tech specialists, and other experts around the world are advocating a global ban on biometric recognition technologies that enable mass and discriminatory surveillance, arguing that „[t]hese tools have the capacity to identify, follow, single out, and track people everywhere they go, undermining our human rights and civil liberties“.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is also speaking out against the use of remote biometric recognition technologies in public spaces, referring to a „lack of compliance with privacy and data protection standards“, „significant accuracy issues“ and „discriminatory impacts“.



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