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. 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.

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