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The EU is facing a backlash over new AI rules that allow for limited use of facial recognition by authorities — with opponents warning the carveouts could usher in a new age of biometric surveillance.
A coalition of digital rights and consumer protection groups across the globe, including Latin America, Africa and Asia are calling for a global ban on biometric recognition technologies that enable mass and discriminatory surveillance by both governments and corporations.
In an open letter, 170 signatories in 55 countries argue that the use of technologies like facial recognition in public places goes against human rights and civil liberties. “It shows that organizations, groups, people, activists, technologists around the world who are concerned with human rights, agree to this call,” said Daniel Leufer of U.S. digital rights group Access Now, which co-authored the letter.
The use of facial recognition technology is becoming widespread. But along with everyday applications like unlocking phones, it’s increasingly being used by governments and companies to surveil people, whether by law enforcement to scan public places for criminals or by grocery stores claiming to use it to catch thieves.
The letter is in part a response to the EU’s AI bill that restricts the practice, but does not prohibit it outright.
In its AI proposals published in April, the European Commission sought to strike a compromise between ensuring the privacy of citizens and placating governments who say they need the tech to fight terrorism and crime. The rules nominally prohibit biometric identification systems like facial recognition in public places for police use — unless in the case of “serious crimes,” which the Commission specified could mean cases related to terrorism, but which activists warn is a vague term that could open the door for all kinds of surveillance based on spurious threats.
It also doesn’t mention anything about corporations using the technology in public places.
Do as I say, not as I do
The problem, they warn, is that even if EU governments uphold stringent restrictions on when surveillance technology is used, it is unlikely governments elsewhere will do the same. Activists in countries like Brazil and India face an uphill struggle convincing their governments that ensuring citizens’ digital privacy is important. New technology could grant law enforcement authorities unprecedented access to citizens’ activities, and activists want to ensure rules are in place that prevent authorities from abusing that tech.
“The first step is to get people to understand that privacy is important and what will happen if privacy is not upheld to people who have not done anything [wrong], people who are marginalized, people who belong to oppressed communities,” said Anushka Jain of the Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian digital rights group that is a signatory to the letter.
In that struggle, they look to the EU, which has what are widely considered to be the most stringent data protection rules in the world.
Many countries, including Brazil, have adopted data protection regimes similar to the EU’s law, known as the General Data Protection Regulation.
In May, Brazilian consumer organization IDEC won a class action court case against a company who has used facial and emotion recognition technology in the São Paulo metro to create personalized marketing. Access Now provided an expert opinion to the Brazilian metro court case based on the GDPR, and the group reckons the Brazilian ruling could have relevance in similar case in the EU.
The danger is that if other countries adopt AI laws similar to the EU’s — an explicit aim of the bloc — any loopholes in the regulation are likely to be in their legislation too.
That’s worrisome not just because of the political implications. A study by Joy Buolamwini, who is one of the letter’s signatories, found that facial recognition systems struggle to recognize people of color, and are likely to misidentify them in many cases.
Leufer said amending the EU’s AI regulation is the EU’s chance of taking a “leading step in really, properly, prohibiting this in order to protect fundamental rights.”
The campaigners believe international coordination might have a better chance of getting traction for their largely local campaigns.
The letter called on the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to condemn the use of the technology for surveillance.
“If the U.N. comes out and says tomorrow that facial recognition is bad, I can talk to anybody on the street and they will know that the United Nations said that,” said Jain.
The group also wants to put pressure on investors and tech giants to stop funding and developing facial recognition technologies for surveillance. Following last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and IBM have already also introduced moratoriums on selling their facial recognition technologies to law enforcement.
Jain said this is not enough, and these moratoriums often don’t extend to countries outside the West.
“It is also extremely important that these international companies come and say that we are developing global standards which are equitable around the world and not just for U.S. or for the European Union,” Jain continued.
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