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Civil rights coalition pressures EU to ban biometric surveillance

Image credit: Wit Olszewski/Dreamstime

A coalition made up of civil and digital rights groups has launched a petition to help pressure the European Union (EU) into banning biometric mass surveillance. This comes ahead of new laws on artificial intelligence (AI) due this year.

Surveillance tools such as facial recognition systems have raised concerns about risks to privacy and fundamental rights and that they could be exploited by repressive regimes to commit human rights violations.

The EU executive plans to announce a legislative proposal on AI in the first quarter of the year. It is expected to cover high-risk sectors such as healthcare, energy, transport, and parts of the public sector.

The group, made up of the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, Reclaim Your Face, European Digital Rights, Privacy International, and around 26 other organisations, warned of the dangers of biometric data captured through CCTV cameras and facial recognition technology.

The coalition, which aims to gather one million signatures so it can take part directly in the legislative process, said it has already collected evidence of vast and systemic abuses of people's biometric data across Europe.

“This is about everyone’s control over their own future,” said Orsolya Reich, senior advocacy officer at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe. “We can already see this happening with the way AI is used to make decisions about us. Biometric mass surveillance will just feed more data from more people into these systems and make these practices even more widespread and harmful.”

The EU’s rights watchdog, the Vienna-based EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, last year raised concerns on the risks of using AI in predictive policing, medical diagnoses, and targeted advertising.

In December last year, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights published a report warning about the risks to rights of many AI applications. And in October, the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that its member states cannot engage in acts of mass surveillance on phones and internet data unless a country is facing “a serious threat to national security”.

At the beginning of 2020, the EU set out a white paper that considered a five-year ban on facial recognition in public areas, in an effort to ensure the technology is developed and used in an ethical way. 

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