October 31, 2020

Leaked Document Suggests Possible Facial Recognition Ban In Europe

Bans of facial recognition tech are popping up across the United States. Facial recognition tech use by law enforcement is currently banned in the state of California and a few cities in Massachusetts have blocked local government agencies from deploying the tech.

Given the tech’s relative inability to do its job, along with a host of other concerns including built-in biases that make it far more likely minorities will suffer the effects of false positives, lawmakers are finally putting the brakes on approving facial recognition use by government agencies.

A white paper leaked to Euractiv appears to indicate the biggest ban so far is under consideration in Europe — one that would affect most of the continent.

The European Commission is considering measures to impose a temporary ban on facial recognition technologies used by both public and private actors, according to a draft white paper on Artificial Intelligence obtained by EURACTIV.

If implemented, the plans could throw current AI projects off course in some EU countries, including Germany’s wish to roll out automatic facial recognition at 134 railway stations and 14 airports. France also has plans to establish a legal framework permitting video surveillance systems to be embedded with facial recognition technologies.

Noting that the GDPR requires certain information disclosures by companies and agencies deploying the tech, the white paper [PDF] suggests going live with facial recognition tech might be unworkable, given that every person passing by an AI-enabled cam would have to consent to data collection. It suggests a moratorium might be the best solution until all the regulatory kinks can be worked out.

Building on these existing provisions, the future regulatory framework could go further and include a time-limited ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces. This would mean that the use of facial recognition technology by private or public actors in public spaces would be prohibited for a definite period (e.g. 3-5 years) during which a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.

That’s just one of the five options being considered by the European Commission. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be one of its favorites. The paper says the most likely approach the Commission will take is a combination of options 3, 4, and 5. The ban is option 2.

But the GDPR definitely causes problems for the rollout of facial recognition tech in public places — something the government agencies itching to deploy it don’t appear to have considered seriously. It’s pretty much unworkable unless the governments rolling these out are going to claim that being in a public place waives GDPR protections.

The desire to subject citizens to biometric collections may result in a rewrite of the GDPR or a blanket exception for collections in public places. This will only make a bad law worse.

But overall, the paper makes it clear the tech will be subject to tight regulation and much more oversight than we’ve seen deployed in the United States. Amendments to safety and liability laws are being considered that would allow tech companies to be held responsible for data breaches or misuse of collected biometric information. There would also be some sort of “trusted vendor” program put in place that would push companies to meet certain standards before they can be considered for government applications.

The ban is a long shot but it’s still in the running. Given the number of changes that may need to be made to make facial recognition tech comply with existing European privacy laws, a temporary moratorium might be the best call to make. Clearly, the legal atmosphere in Europe isn’t exactly welcoming for new data collection tech. But the narrative that more surveillance = safer countries will always have powerful proponents, which may override the privacy concerns of millions of European citizens and subject them to mass surveillance.
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