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Members of the European Parliament: will you stand up for our rights?

Today, a global coalition of 53 civil society organisations have joined together to call on Members of the European Parliament to use their democratically-elected powers to protect us all from biometric mass surveillance practices. The EU must not legitimise these dangerous practices. Otherwise, EU lawmakers risk setting a precedent for uses of AI-based technology which could destroy people’s anonymity forever and suppress a broad range of our rights and freedoms.

Brussels, Tuesday 10 May, 2022

Dear honourable Members of the European Parliament,

We write to you today as 53 organisations to ask: Will you stand up for our rights by prohibiting biometric mass surveillance in the Artificial Intelligence Act?

In Europe and across the world, the use of remote biometric identification (RBI) systems such as facial recognition, in our publicly accessible spaces, represents one of the greatest threats to fundamental rights and democracy that we have ever seen.

The remote use of such systems destroys the possibility of anonymity in public, and undermines the essence of our rights to privacy and data protection, the right to freedom of expression, rights to free assembly and association (leading to the criminalisation of protest and causing a chilling effect), and rights to equality and non-discrimination.

Without an outright ban on the remote use of these technologies in publicly accessible spaces, all the places where we exercise our rights and come together as communities will be turned into sites of mass surveillance where we are all treated as suspects.

These harms are not hypothetical. Uyghur Muslims have been systematically persecuted by the Chinese government through the use of facial recognition. Pro-democracy protesters and political opponents have been suppressed or targeted in Russia, Serbia and Hong Kong through the use – and in some cases, even just the fear of the use of – RBI in publicly-accessible spaces. And many people have been wrongfully and traumatically arrested around the world.1

In response to the ever-increasing proliferation of these uses and their harms, people are pushing back and calling for prohibitions. More than 24 US states have taken steps against facial recognition or other forms of biometric mass surveillance. In South America, two recent rulings in São Paulo and Buenos Aires have ordered the suspension of facial recognition systems.

Some of the world’s biggest providers of biometric surveillance systems – Microsoft, Amazon and IBM – have even adopted self-imposed moratoriums due to the major risks and harms that they know their systems perpetuate; and Facebook has deleted its mass facial image database.

Despite the strong protections afforded to biometric data in EU data protection law, we see companies and public authorities systematically misusing “consent” and vague security justifications as a basis for the use of facial recognition and other biometric systems in ways that amount to inherently disproportionate mass surveillance practices.

While democratic countries around the world are taking steps to protect their communities, the EU is heading in the opposite direction.

A clear, unambiguous prohibition is needed in the AI Act to put a stop to the dangerous status quo.2 In 2021, the European Parliament adopted a powerful stance against biometric mass surveillance practices in the AI in criminal law report, which calls for: “a ban on any processing of biometric data, including facial images, for law enforcement purposes that leads to mass surveillance in publicly accessible spaces” (Article 31).

The AI Act is the obvious way for this important European Parliament resolution to be translated into binding, impactful law.

The urgent need for further action has also been recognised at EU Member State level. Italy has introduced Europe’s first moratorium on public facial recognition. The German coalition government has called for an EU-wide ban on biometric mass surveillance practices. Portugal dropped a law which would have legalised some biometric mass surveillance practices. And the Belgian Parliament is considering a moratorium on biometric surveillance.

Will you make (the right kind of) history?

There is already significant evidence that European residents havebeen systematically subjected to biometric mass surveillance practices. From football fans, to school children, to commuters, to shoppers, to people visiting LGBTQ+ bars and places of worship, the harms are real and prevalent. Via the Reclaim Your Face campaign, over 70,000 EU citizens urge you and your fellow lawmakers to better protect us from these undemocratic and harmful biometric systems.

Around the world, over 200 civil society organisations, from Burundi to Taiwan, have signed a letter calling for a global ban on biometric surveillance. As the first region to comprehensively regulate artificial intelligence, the EU’s actions – or inaction – will have major ramifications on biometric mass surveillance practices in every corner of the globe.

While dozens of US states are learning from horrendous mistakes such as the facial recognition-enabled suppression of Black Lives Matter protesters, governments in India, China and Russia are moving in the opposite direction. Which side of history will the EU be on: legitimising authoritarian technological surveillance, or choosing fundamental rights?

How can we make this a reality in the AI Act?

The AI Act must prohibit all remote(i.e. generalised surveillance) uses of biometric identification (RBI) in publicly-accessible spaces. This means that uses like unlocking a smartphone or using an ePassport gate would not be prohibited. While Article 5(1)(d) already aims to prohibit some uses of RBI, its scope is so narrow and contains so many exceptions that it practically provides a legal basis for practices that should, in fact, already be prohibited under existing data protection rules.

We therefore call on you to propose amendments to Article 5(1)(d)3 which would:

  • Extend the scope of the prohibition to cover all private as well as public actors;
  • Ensure that all uses of RBI (whether real-time or post) in publicly-accessible spaces are included in the prohibition; and
  • Delete the exceptions to the prohibition, which independent human rights assessments confirm do not meet existing EU fundamental rights standards.

To ensure a comprehensive approach to the protection of biometric data, we additionally urge you to use the opportunity provided by the AI Act to put a stop to discriminatory or manipulative forms of biometric categorisation, and to properly address the risks of emotion recognition.

The EU aims to create an “ecosystem of trust and excellence” for AI and to be the world leader in trustworthy AI. Accomplishing these aims will mean putting a stop to applications of AI that undermine trust, violate our rights, and turn our public spaces into surveillance nightmares. We can promote AI that really serves people, while stamping out the most dangerous applications of this powerful technology.

That’s why the EU’s way must be to truly put people at the heart, and to put forward amendments to the IMCO-LIBE report on the AI Act which willensure a genuine ban on biometric mass surveillance practices.

Signed,

Reclaim Your Face

Organisational signatories:

Access Now (International)

AlgorithmWatch (European)

Alternatif Bilisim (AIA- Alternative Informatics Association) (Turkey)

anna elbe – Weitblick für Hamburg (Germany)

ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression (International)

Asociatia pentru Tehnologie si Internet – ApTI (Romania)

Barracón Digital (Honduras)

Big Brother Watch (UK)

Bits of Freedom (the Netherlands)

Blueprint for Free Speech (International)

Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine)

Chaos Computer Club (Germany)

Civil Liberties Union for Europe (European)

D3 – Defesa dos Direitos Digitais (Portugal)

Digital Rights Watch (Australia)

Digitalcourage (Germany)

Digitale Freiheit (Germany)

Digitale Gesellschaft (Germany)

Digitale Gesellschaft CH (Switzerland)

Državljan D / Citizen D (Slovenia / European)

Eticas Foundation (European / International)

European Center For Not-For-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL) (European)

European Digital Rights (EDRi) (International)

European Disability Forum (EDF) (European)

Fachbereich Informatik und Gesellschaft, Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V. (Germany)

Fair Trials (International)

Fight for the Future (United States)

Football Supporters Europe (FSE) (European)

Hermes Center (Italy)

Hiperderecho (Perú)

Homo Digitalis (Greece)

Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) (Thailand)

Internet Protection Society (Russia / European)

Intersection Association for Rights and Freedoms (Tunisia)

IT-Pol Denmark (Denmark)

International Legal Initiative (Kazakhstan)

Iuridicum Remedium (IuRe) (Czech Republic)

JCA-NET (Japan)

Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet (Republic of Korea)

La Quadrature du Net (France)

Lady Lawyer Foundation (International)

LaLibre.net Tecnologías Counitarias (Ecuador / Latin America)

Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH) (France)

Ligue des droits humains (Belgium)

LOAD e.V. – Association for liberal internet policy (Germany)

Masaar – Technology and Law Community (Egypt)

Panoptykon Foundation (Poland)

Privacy International (International)

Privacy Network (Italy)

Statewatch (Europe)

Usuarios Digitales (Ecuador)

Wikimedia Deutschland (Germany / European)

Wikimedia France (France / European)

Individual signatories:

Douwe Korff, Emeritus Professor of International Law

Dr Vita Peacock, Anthropologist

Edson Prestes, Full Professor, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil)

1 For example: https://www.aclu.org/news/privacy-technology/i-did-nothing-wrong-i-was-arrested-anyway; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/29/technology/facial-recognition-misidentify-jail.html; https://www.wired.com/story/wrongful-arrests-ai-derailed-3-mens-lives/; https://edri.org/our-work/dangerous-by-design-a-cautionary-tale-about-facial-recognition/; https://www.law.georgetown.edu/privacy-technology-center/publications/garbage-in-garbage-out-face-recognition-on-flawed-data/

2 The General Data Protection Regulation, Article 9, paragraph 4, foresees additional protections of biometric data: “Member States may maintain or introduce further conditions, including limitations, with regard to the processing of … biometric data”.

3 This must be supported by a new Recital to better define “remote” use cases as those where cameras/devices are installed at a distance that creates the capacity to scan multiple persons, which in theory could identify one or more of them without their knowledge. Warning notices do not annul such a definition.

SUCCESS! New German government calls for European ban on biometric mass surveillance

The newly-agreed German government coalition has called for a Europe-wide ban on public facial recognition and other biometric surveillance. This echoes the core demands of the Reclaim Your Face campaign which EDRi has co-led since 2020, through which over 65 civil society groups ask the EU and their national governments to outlaw biometric data mass surveillance.

Read More

Our voices have been heard: European Parliament calls for a ban on biometric mass surveillance!

In a huge victory for human rights, the European Parliament has just voted to adopt a new report which calls to ban biometric mass surveillance. This is a key moment for the Reclaim Your Face campaign, because, although the report is not legally binding, it gives a strong indication of the Parliament’s position on the ‘Artificial Intelligence Act’.

Over 61,000 EU citizens have already signed our official initiative to ban biometric mass surveillance practices in EU law. Now, we have clear evidence that our voices have been heard! In what’s known as an own-initiative report (INI), the European Parliament decided to proactively set out their vision that police should use artificial intelligence technologies only in ways that respect people’s human rights and freedoms. This includes a demand to ban biometric mass surveillance, which is one of the most powerful and progressive calls we have seen from politicians or lawmakers anywhere in the world. Specifically, the report:

  • Warns about the severe risks of police uses of facial authentification / verification, and the need for such applications to be necessary and proportionate (§ 25);
  • Calls for a moratorium (time-limited suspension) of any facial identification by police until it can be proven as fundamental rights-compliant. If this cannot be proven, it must be banned (§27) (see the final bullet point for an even stronger outcome on any facial ID that leads to mass surveillance);
  • For other biometric features, demands ‘a permanent prohibition of the use of automated analysis and/or recognition in publicly accessible spaces of other human features, such as gait, fingerprints, DNA, voice, and other biometric and behavioural signals’ (§26);
  • Recommends a ban on the use of private databases, like Clearview AI, by law enforcement (§28);
  • And the pièce de résistance: ‘calls on the Commission, therefore, to implement, through legislative and non-legislative means, and if necessary through infringement proceedings, a ban on any processing of biometric data, including facial images, for law enforcement purposes that leads to mass surveillance in publicly accessible spaces’ as well as a ban on funding mass surveillance research (§31).

These are not the only exciting bits of the report. The report also takes a view of AI harms as structural, pointing to the severe risks for racialised and minoritised people. It even calls to prohibit discriminatory predictive policing practices, which rob people of the presumption of innocence.

This report matters so much because it gives the Parliament’s lead negotiators a clear message from their colleagues to push for a ban on biometric mass surveillance in their position on the AI Act, which they will have to negotiate with representatives from every EU member state’s government.

Whilst we celebrated the AI Act for its in-principle ban on real-time remote biometric identification by law enforcement, we called out the enormous holes in this so-called ‘ban’ and the fact that it would not prevent biometric mass surveillance. Now, we have a chance to ensure that the Act really does fulfill its promise to protect individuals, communities, and democracies from the threat of constant biometric surveillance.

Many organisations within the Reclaim Your Face campaign joined the push to help overturn an attempt from some members of the European Parliament (in particular from the right-wing EPP group) to weaken the report and explicitly allow biometric mass surveillance. Today, we celebrate and thank the brave MEPs that stood up for rights and freedoms. Tomorrow, we continue the fight to ban biometric mass surveillance and reclaim our faces!

Read the full text (EN) of the adopted report and check for other language versions.

New petition calls Europeans to unite for their future

The Reclaim Your Face coalition launches a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) today to ban biometric mass surveillance. The ECI represents the voice of those who oppose a dystopian future and instead want a future in which choices are made by us, not by algorithms. The initiative needs to collect 1 million signatures in at least 7 EU countries during the next year.

As the European Commission is preparing new laws on Artificial Intelligence, a growing coalition of digital and human rights organisations led by European Digital Rights (EDRi) warns of the many dangers of biometric mass surveillance on our freedom and dignity. The Reclaim Your Face coalition is demanding a ban on the use of harmful AI such as biometric mass surveillance by launching a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) today. The ECI is a unique tool the EU puts at the disposal of European citizens to organise and collectively demand new legislative frameworks.

Biometric data are data about our bodies and behaviours, which can divulge sensitive information about who we are. For example, our faces can be used for facial recognition to make a prediction or assessment about us – and so can our eyes, veins, voices, the way we walk or type on a keyboard, and much more.

Governments, police forces and corporations are using recording devices (like CCTV cameras) and facial recognition software to gather our unique biometric data. They track us by using our unique characteristics in order to permanently identify each of us. The blanket capture of every person’s biometric data in public spaces like parks, train stations and shops simply for trying to live our lives is biometric mass surveillance.

“Biometric mass surveillance brings “Internet-style” omnipresent tracking to the offline world. This would eradicate the few remaining refuges of privacy.”

Linus Neumann, EDRi member Chaos Computer Club

The processing of any biometric data is already prohibited the EU. However, EU law allows some very problematic exceptions to this general prohibition. Powerful actors take advantage of this legal confusion by introducing – outside of democratic oversight – these harmful technologies in our public spaces, dehumanising and treating us all as walking barcodes.

“Europeans have a proud and diverse history of rising up against injustice: the fight for universal suffrage, the Solidarność (Solidarity) workers’ movement, and so much more. Today, we launch a 1-million person petition that asks the EU to protect everyone from the harms of facial recognition and other biometric mass surveillance. By doing this, the Reclaim Your Face campaign fights for a future where people can live freely, express, think and organise without fear.”

Ella Jakubowska, Policy and Campaigns Officer, EDRi

The coalition has already built up evidence of vast and systemic abuses of people’s biometric data across Europe and is successfully challenging such deployments. Serbian authorities are surveilling the population on the streets of Belgrade. Italian authorities targeted migrants communities with biometric surveillance systems in the city of Como, and despite the fact that the practice was declared illegal, they are now trying to introduce it in other cities. In Greece, national authorities are investigating the use of biometric surveillance during police stops. In France, civil society fought in court the use of biometric mass surveillance targeting high schools and protesters. In the Netherlands, national authorities criticised biometric mass surveillance in supermarkets. The Reclaim Your Face coalition has been essential in challenging these investigations. For example Homo Digitalis triggered data protection investigations in Greece and Bits of Freedom supported statements by national authorities against biometric mass surveillance in the Netherlands. However, it has become clear that we need to act united, across countries, at European level.

The ECI represents the voice of those who oppose a dystopian future and instead want a future in which choices are made by us, not by algorithms, in which our bodies belong to us, in which we are not discriminated against based on how we look, how much money we have, or where we are from, and in which we have equity and justice.

The ECI needs to collect 1 million signatures in at least 7 EU countries during the next year. Succeeding will oblige the European Commission to respond to our formal demand for a new law and open a debate among the Members of the European Parliament.

This is a truly unique opportunity for all EU citizens to request a law that protects them by outlawing biometric surveillance practices in public spaces. A ban is our only hope to prevent harms that arise with the identification and judgment of people based on their face, body, features and behaviour.

European citizens have a historical chance to stop the harm before biometric mass surveillance becomes permanent in our society.

People across Europe challenge biometric mass surveillance as Reclaim Your Face launches

Civil society across Europe slams biometric mass surveillance in a series of successful actions, protecting the dignity of people in the public space. Human rights groups Hermes Center (Italy), Homo Digitalis (Greece), Bits of Freedom (The Netherlands), Iuridicum Remedium (Czechia), SHARE Foundation (Serbia), Access Now and European Digital Rights (EDRi) today announce the launch of a broad European public campaign – Reclaim Your Face: Ban Biometric Mass Surveillance.

In past months, these civil society groups have already successfully mobilised their communities. This has culminated in stopping the use of facial recognition technology in French schools; calling for the Data Protection Authority’s investigations against the use of facial recognition by the Hellenic police; celebrating the City of Prague for refusing the introduction of facial recognition technologies in public; stopping an unlawful deployment of biometric surveillance in the Italian city of Como; as well as crowdsourcing a comprehensive mapping of all live facial recognition cameras in the city of Belgrade, Serbia. The newly-launched “Reclaim Your Face” coalition therefore calls on local and national authorities to reveal the risks and reject the use of biometric surveillance in public spaces.

“Public spaces and organised dissent are crucial for all major political progress in Serbia, as we strive for democracy. Biometric mass surveillance threatens our freedoms and ability to organise – we have to stop it.”

Filip Milošević, SHARE Foundation, Serbia

This civil society call to ban biometric mass surveillance comes in reaction to the rapid and secretive roll out of invasive and unlawful technologies by police forces and local authorities in many European countries. The European Commission is currently considering all options for protecting people from harmful uses of biometric surveillance technology, including a ban. We urge them to take the need for a ban seriously and put an end to this enormous threat to our rights and freedoms.

“Biometric surveillance dehumanises us into lifeless bits of data, stripping our autonomy and ability to express who we are. It forces us into an unaccountable, automated system in which we are unfairly categorised. Only a ban on biometric mass surveillance can ensure strong, joyful and organised communities can thrive.”

Laura Carrer, Hermes Center, Italy

Other organisations involved in the campaign coalition include Privacy International, ARTICLE 19, Chaos Computer Club (Germany), Panoptykon Foundation (Poland) and La Quadrature du Net (France).

Get in touch: info@reclaimyourface.eu

#ReclaimYourFace Launched in November 2020, #ReclaimYourFace is a European movement that brings people’s voices into the democratic debate about the use of our biometric data. The coalition challenges the use of this sensitive data in public spaces and its impact on our freedoms. Our coalition is made up of 12 European civil society organisations united to protect fundamental rights in the digital environment. SIGN UP TO THE CAMPAIGNS MAILING LIST

European Citizen's Initiative

Reclaim your Face



ReclaimYourFace is a movement led by civil society organisations across Europe:

Access Now ARTICLE19 Bits of Freedom CCC Defesa dos Direitos Digitais (D3) Digitalcourage Digitale Gesellschaft CH Digitale Gesellschaft DE Državljan D EDRi Electronic Frontier Finland epicenter.works Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights Homo Digitalis IT-Political Association of Denmark IuRe La Quadrature du Net Liberties Metamorphosis Foundation Panoptykon Foundation Privacy International SHARE Foundation
In collaboration with our campaign partners:

AlgorithmWatch AlgorithmWatch/CH All Out Amnesty International Anna Elbe Aquilenet Associazione Luca Coscioni Ban Facial Recognition Europe Big Brother Watch Certi Diritti Chaos Computer Club Lëtzebuerg (C3L) CILD D64 Danes je nov dan Datapanik Digitale Freiheit DPO Innovation Electronic Frontier Norway European Center for Not-for-profit Law (ECNL) European Digital Society Eumans Football Supporters Europe Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) Forum InformatikerInnen für Frieden und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung Germanwatch German acm chapter Gesellschaft Fur Informatik (German Informatics Society) GONG Hellenic Association of Data Protection and Privacy Hellenic League for Human Rights info.nodes irish council for civil liberties JEF, Young European Federalists Kameras Stoppen Ligue des droits de L'Homme (FR) Ligue des Droits Humains (BE) LOAD e.V. Ministry of Privacy Privacy Lx Privacy Network Projetto Winston Smith Reporters United Saplinq Science for Democracy Selbstbestimmt.Digital STRALI Stop Wapenhandel The Good Lobby Italia UNI-Europa Unsurv Vrijbit Wikimedia FR Xnet


Reclaim Your Face is also supported by:

Jusos Piratenpartei DE Pirátská Strana

MEP Patrick Breyer, Germany, Greens/EFA
MEP Marcel Kolaja, Czechia, Greens/EFA
MEP Anne-Sophie Pelletier, France, The Left
MEP Kateřina Konečná, Czechia, The Left



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