Goodbye ECI, hello AI Act negotiations!
Today, 1st of August at 23:59, our European Citizens Initiative comes to an end. However, our campaign carries on to influence EU leaders as they negotiate the AI Act.
We started the ECI in January 2021, calling for a new law that bans biometric mass surveillance. 18 months later, we are ready for reflections and for a celebration of all that we have achieved together.
We campaigned during a pandemic and worked with creative efforts to gather signatures while respecting privacy and protecting data. We adapted to the political reality and managed to influence EU’s negotiations. We built a coalition with 76 organisations from over 20 EU countries. We led national actions and we won.
Campaigning for privacy with privacy
Out of the 90 ECIs ever started, only 6 have been able to reach the threshold of 1 million signatories. All 6 used social media targeted advertising. In Reclaim Your Face we have a commitment to everyone’s privacy. Therefore, we gathered almost 80 thousand signatures without using any targeted social media advertisement (or as we call them, surveillance ads). Every single ECI signatory was reached directly by one of our partners or their supporters by sharing our posts, sending newsletters and collecting signatures in the streets.
A challenge? Yes. But organic reach gave us a great opportunity to have direct interactions with other organisations, a high level of engagement from our supporters, and quality conversations about biometric mass surveillance. In fact, all of these factors played out to make our petition the “most politically powerful ECI ever”, according to an insider part of the European Economic and Social Committee.
“Most politically powerful ECI ever”Insider part of the European Economic and Social Committee.
This is how we did it:
Coalition building: Different voices across Europe
Reclaim Your Face aimed to have a diversity of voices represented in our call to ban biometric mass surveillance. We listened and worked especially with groups most affected by this exploitative practice.
We worked with LGBTQ+ advocates at AllOut, with football supporters association Fans Europe, with Roma and Sinti rights supporters at save space e.V. as well as Workers Union UNI Europa. Everyone- migrations organisations, privacy defenders, journalists, etc- united for one cause: banning biometric mass surveillance.
In total, we were joined by 76 organisations from 20 Member States – who represent over half a million supporters. Our coalition has been the backbone of our success.
Volunteers for paper signature collection
Once the pandemic allowed us to be present in offline spaces, we decided to organise a Bootcamp for those who wanted to help us gather signatures. We trained over 80 people from more than 7 countries on 3 topics: biometric mass surveillance issues, ECI data protection practices and offline engagement methods.
The new Reclaim Your Face volunteers collected signatures in their own cities and engaged with people in the streets, at universities, in parks and in other public spaces. Activists in Portugal, Italy, Germany, Czechia and Greece made time in their days to share their thoughts on biometric mass surveillance, inform other citizens about its’ incompatibility with human rights and collect paper signatures for our ECI.
Local national campaigns
Reclaim Your Face was decentralised, building communities in more than 6 countries that led national actions and successes. Among many, here are some of our national wins:
The campaign’s German movement led by EDRi members Chaos Computer Club (CCC), Digitale Gesellschaft and Digitalcourage worked with more than 16 organisations. They organised over 14 events and were part of social media stunts, Twitter storms, as well as offline peaceful manifestations. Almost 30,000 German citizens signed the campaign’s European Citizens’ Initiative, proving that people-powered action can create meaningful change.
- In May 2021, authorities dropped a project to establish a smart video surveillance system in the city centre of Karlsuhe after of Reclaim Your Face partner Chaos Computer Club’s chapter Karlsruhe complained. The plan involved an AI system that would analyse the behaviour of passers-by and automatically identify conspicuous behaviour. Previously, the exploitative biometric mass surveillance system was presented by authorities as “data protection compliant video surveillance”.
- In November 2021, the new German government announced their highly-anticipated coalition deal, includingthe strongest commitments seen so far in Europe to “rule … out” “biometric recognition in public”. They further called to “reject comprehensive video surveillance and the use of biometric recording for surveillance purposes”.
The Italian national campaign lead by Hermes Center, with more than 9 organisations in the coalition has coordinated many actions too, across almost 2 years.
- In May 2022, they organised a week of actions that included paper signature collection in Milan, Torino and Rome, presenting in an event about the temporary ban on facial recognition technology in public spaces in Italy and a field visit to the city of Como, the first city to implement facial recognition technology in their park in 2019 through an offer by Huawei. Their work was reflected in the Greens- European Free Alliance Group’s newly released mini-documentary (about the field trip to Como), and articles about the actions and results of Reclaim Your Face in Italy were published on national TV and radio station in the Czech Republic.
- In March 2022, after individuals (including Riccardo Coluccini) and Reclaim Your Face organisations (among them Hermes Centre for Transparency and Digital Human Rights and Privacy Network) filed a complaint against Clearview AI, Italian’s data privacy watchdog (Garante per la Protezione dei dati personali) fined Clearview AI the highest amount possible: 20 million Euros. The decision includes an order to erase the data relating to individuals in Italy and banned any further collection and processing of the data through the company’s facial recognition system.
- In September 2021 the Italian DPA fined €200 000 the Luigi Bocconi University for using Respondus, a proctoring software, without sufficiently informing students of the processing of their personal data and processing their biometric data without a legal basis.
- In April 2021, the Italian Data Protection Authority (DPA) rejected the SARI Real Time facial recognition system acquired by the Police and adopted moratorium on the use of facial recognition technologies in public spaces both by public and private actors.
Leading organisation Iure has also organised many actions from creative work like comics and video clips, to paper signature collection days.
Two of the leading actions for Reclaim Your Face in Czechia has been the fight against biometric cameras at Prague airport and one of the seminars organised in the Chamber of Deputies where they talked about biometric cameras with police and political representatives.
Apart from this, in May 2022 in Prague, they spoke with people in the streets about biometric mass surveillance and its’ dangers for society. From April to July they also spoke and promote the campaign on five festivals and community screenings of their movie Digital Dissidents, which explores people that are critical to digital technologies.
Hellenic leading organisation of Reclaim Your Face, Homo Digitalis have also been active in Greece.
- In May 2022 they organised a paper signature collection in the streets of Athens.
- In July 2022, Homo Digitalis finally got an answer from the Hellenic Data Protection Authority. Following a complaint filed by Homo Digitalis in May 2021 representing their member and data subject Marina Zacharopoulou, the (HDPA) issued a decision imposing a fine of 20 million euros on Clearview AI for its intrusive practices.
As a result of international pressure, in September 2021, a Draft Law on Internal Affairs, which contained provisions for legalising a massive biometric video surveillance system, was pulled from the further procedure. This was an amazing win for human rights and a result of Share Foundation’s national campaign Thousands of Cameras, a two-and-a-half year-long battle against smart cameras in Belgrade installed by the Ministry of Interior and supplied by Chinese tech giant Huawei.
The Portuguese lead organisation in the Reclaim Your Face coalition D3 (Defesa Dos Direitos Digitais) led actions to raise awareness, as the Portuguese government proposed video surveillance and facial recognition law. Reclaim Your Face organisations and EDRi sent a letter to representatives of Portugal’s main political parties, supporting D3’s fight against biometric mass surveillance practices. Together, we urged politicians to reject this dystopian law. The proposal was later withdrawn.
EU level successes
In parallel with our work at the national level, we unite and coordinate EU-level actions.
- Before the AI Act law was proposed in April 2021, we communicated intensively about our ECI to Members of the EU Parliament. They supported our call for a ban, and united to ask the EU Commission to include a ban in the upcoming planned draft law.
- In April 2021, when the law was proposed, we managed to include in the draft a mention of a ban. While not enough, our success to put the topic on the political agenda was clear.
- In May 2021, a coalition of organisations (including noyb, Privacy International (PI), Hermes Center and Homo Digitalis) filed a series of submissions against Clearview AI, Inc. The complaints were submitted to data protection regulators in France, Austria, Italy, Greece and the United Kingdom. Some already had their decisions published fining Clearview AI while we are awaiting for others.
- In June 2021, the two most important regulators for ensuring people’s rights to privacy and data protection across the EU, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) announced their formal call to ban biometric mass surveillance practices.
- In October 2021, we had a huge victory for human rights as the European Parliament voted to adopt a new report which calls to ban biometric mass surveillance. Although the report is not legally binding, it gave a strong indication of the Parliament’s position on the ‘Artificial Intelligence Act’.
- In fact, in May 2022 we could see the results of our actions. After meeting with key MEPs working on the EU’s AI Act proposal, delivering an open letter signed by 53 organisations and publishing multiple op-eds, both co-lead MEP on the AI Act announced their support for a ban. Dragos Tudorache (Renew) announced that he personally will table amendments for a more comprehensive ban on RBI in publicly-accessible spaces, calling RBI “clearly highly intrusive … in our privacy, our rights”.
Today we say goodbye to our European Citizens Initiative and are humbled by the tens of thousands of people who signed it.
However, Reclaim Your Face continues!
We envision a society in which no one is harmed by biometric mass surveillance. Such a society is only possible when biometric mass surveillance is banned by law and in practice. Together with our partners, we continue to fight for this a reality by advocating for an AI Act that puts people at its core.