Council of Europe calls for strict facial-recognition rules protecting human rights

The Council of Europe, an international organisation distinct from the EU, has called for much stricter regulations on facial-recognition technology to protect privacy and equality.

The 47-country human rights and democracy organisation has published a set of guidelines [PDF] for governments, lawmakers, providers, and businesses laying out its proposals for use of facial recognition.

The guidelines were developed by the Consultative Committee of the body’s convention for the protection of individuals with regard to automatic processing of personal data. It lays out a narrow set of circumstances under which the technology should be used, and proposes banning some uses altogether.

“At its best, facial recognition can be convenient, helping us to navigate obstacles in our everyday lives,” said Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić. “At its worst, it threatens our essential human rights, including privacy, equal treatment, and non-discrimination, empowering state authorities and others to monitor and control important aspects of our lives, often without our knowledge or consent.

“But this can be stopped. These guidelines ensure the protection of people’s personal dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms, including the security of their personal data.”

The guidelines recommend that legislation restricting the use of facial-recognition technology is well-defined, setting clear parameters and criteria for users to adhere to.

It recommends only permitting facial recognition in uncontrolled environments, such as shopping centres, for law-enforcement purposes. The Council of Europe said that the use of covert live facial-recognition in these environments must be strictly necessary and proportionate to prevent imminent and serious risk to public security, as documented in advance. Private companies should not be allowed to use this technology in public spaces for the purposes of marketing or private security, it said.

The guidelines also call for a democratic debate on the use of live facial-recognition in public spaces and schools, and a possible moratorium pending further analysis.

It proposes that facial-recognition use for the sole purpose of determining a person’s skin colour, religious affinity, sex, racial or ethnic origin, age, health or social status should be prohibited entirely.

This should also extend to “affect recognition” technologies, which attempt to identify emotions, personality traits, engagement, learning disabilities, and mental health conditions; the Council of Europe warned that these pose important risks in fields such as employment, education, and insurance.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is contemplating new legislation regulating the use of AI, including facial recognition technology. In October, the European Parliament voted strongly to endorse guiding principles for AI which emphasise privacy, transparency, and social responsibility.

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