Should the EU ban software that can pick a face out of a crowd?

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A growing political coalition thinks so — and just received heavyweight support from the third largest group in the EU parliament, where a majority is now in favor of banning facial recognition tech that scans crowds indiscriminately and in real-time.

The support from Renew, which joins the Greens and Socialists & Democrats groups in backing a ban, shows how a growing part of Europe’s political leadership is in favor of restrictions on artificial intelligence that go far beyond anything in other technologically-advanced regions of the world including the U.S. Last week, POLITICO obtained a document detailing a new civil liability law for AI applications — an avant-garde step toward a legal regime for autonomous programs and devices.

“We’re going to ban what we believe is not according to our values, the deployment [of biometric identification] in public spaces where we as Europeans, we believe that we need to be free of the risks of mass surveillance,” said Renew’s Dragoș Tudorache. “The prevailing position in this house is to support the ban for this technology.”

Opponents of live facial recognition tech argue that such tools are favored by authoritarian governments in places like Russia and China to track dissidents or vulnerable minorities, and are ultimately dangerous for civil liberties. They also point to risks of racial profiling and invasion of privacy, which led large companies including IBM, Amazon and Microsoft to suspend the sale of facial recognition tools to governments.

Yet even as the EU moves toward approving the world’s first rule-book for AI, the enthusiasm of EU lawmakers and some regulators for banning live facial recognition is likely to run into hard opposition from another group of interested parties — nation states that want to keep facial recognition tech in their security arsenals.

Home affairs ministers have been hard at work ensuring that the EU’s AI law, the Artificial Intelligence Act, doesn’t tie their hands. And while the European Commission is restricting the use of facial recognition in public places for companies, it’s left wide exemptions for law enforcements to deploy the tech in cases including a search for missing children, preventing terrorist attacks or locating armed and dangerous criminals.    

Changing mood

For Renew, also known as the liberals, support for a ban has grown slowly after some initial skepticism. But now they are lining up with left-wing lawmakers in calling for a ban on live facial recognition momentum.

“The mood has changed … In my group, there is a majority that supports this idea of a ban,” said Tudorache, who previously served as Romania’s home affairs minister.

Now the leading Parliament negotiator on a new artificial intelligence law, he doesn’t want exemptions for the police to use the technology in specific cases, because it would pose “very difficult control and accountability.” 

European governments and companies have been ramping up their experimentation with facial recognition. Biometrics algorithms aiming to match faces against databases in real-time can use existing networks of public cameras.

This worries European data protection watchdog the EDPB, which last year called for a prohibition on all facial recognition of individuals in public spaces that contravene fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of movement. 

And more than 50 European campaign groups have been trying to convince lawmakers of a ban.

“If it’s allowed to be used even for exceptional purposes it means that the infrastructure will be there and you as a citizen will never know if it’s turned on,” said Daniel Leufer, a campaigner for NGO Access Now. “This technology has no place in a society committed to democracy and fundamental rights.”

Liberal lawmakers are nearer a middle ground than colleagues to the left, the Socialists and Democrats and the Greens, who want to go even further and outlaw any facial recognition and the creation of biometric databases that collect photos from social media.

The growing consensus in the European Parliament has isolated center-right lawmakers in the European People’s Party who have been pushing in an opposite direction to open up more possibilities for the police to use facial recognition.

Convincing EU countries

The real challenge to a facial recognition ban comes from EU governments sitting in the Council of the EU, where some countries like France have been worried that outlawing the technology could seriously weaken public security. With fresh memories of terrorist attacks in recent years and plans to host the Olympics next year, Paris wants to have all the possible tools it can. 

French judges are supportive of the top administrative court saying it would be wrong to prohibit a technology that could help identify a known terrorist in a large crowd during a mass event.

While Germany has pushed for tight restrictions on the technology, in general, EU governments have been working to make sure the new AI law won’t severely curb law enforcement’s activities.

According to the latest draft changes made to the law by EU countries and seen by POLITICO, European capitals are pushing to add more exemptions for law enforcement. Beyond searching for kidnapping victims and suspects of crime, they would like to see police also be able to use real-time facial recognition to prevent any “substantial threat” to critical infrastructure. The European governments could reach their final position before the end of the year, according to two EU diplomats.

For now, left-wing and liberal lawmakers are focused on maintaining their momentum for a facial recognition ban until the European Parliament formally secures its position in a vote by the end of the year.

German liberal Svenja Hahn stressed tense negotiations were still ongoing on such a sensitive topic.

“This will be one of the most intense battlegrounds,” she said. “Law enforcement hope facial recognition is a magic wand to fight crime but it’s not, there’s a high risk for discrimination.”

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