Parliament calls loud and clear for a ban on biometric mass surveillance in AI Act
After our timely advocacy actions with over 70 organisations, the amendments to the IMCO – LIBE Committee Report for the Artificial Intelligence Act clearly state the need for a ban on Remote Biometric Identification. In fact, 24 individual MEPs representing 158 MEPs, demand a complete ban on biometric mass surveillance practices. Now we need to keep up the pressure at European and national levels to ensure that when the AI Act is officially passed, likely in 2023 or 2024, it bans biometric mass surveillance.
Remote biometric identification (RBI): what, where, why?
In April 2021, as a direct result of the work of civil society organisations like Reclaim Your Face, the European Commission put forward the draft for the EU Artificial Intelligence Act. The draft explicitly recognised the serious human rights risks of biometric mass surveillance by including a prohibition on ‘remote biometric identification’ (RBI) in publicly-accessible spaces.
However, the original RBI ban proposed by the European Commission was weak in three main ways:
- It banned ‘real-time’ (live) uses of RBI systems, but not the far more common ‘post’ uses. This means that authorities could use RBI after the data is collected (hours, days or even months after!) to turn back the clock, identifying journalists, people seeking reproductive healthcare, and more.
- It only applied the ban to law enforcement actors (i.e. police). As a result, we could all still be surveilled in public spaces by local councils, central governments, supermarket owners, shopping center managers, university administration and any other public or private actors.
- It also contained a series of wide and dangerous exceptions that could be used as a “blueprint” for how to conduct biometric mass surveillance practices – undermining the whole purpose and essence of the ban!
Whilst this was a big win, it has some limitations. The next steps of the process require that the EU’s 704 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and 27 member state governments agree to a ban for it to become law.
A hot topic in the European Parliament
In the EU Parliament, the MEPs who work in the Civil Liberties (LIBE) and Internal Markets (IMCO) working groups (also known as ‘Committees’) were given the joint responsibility to lead on the Parliament’s official position on the AI Act. As such, they presented a shared IMCO – LIBE report in March 2022.
After that, they had to present their amendments in a process by which MEPs are able to show which parts of the AI Act are most important to them, and how they would like to see improvements.
To influence this, Reclaim Your Face organised with the 76 civil society organisations part of our coalition. Many campaigners and advocates involved in the Reclaim Your Face campaign met with MEPs in the weeks and months preceding the amendments and organised an open letter. They encouraged MEPs to listen to the tens of thousands of people who signed the ECI petition calling for a ban and that the amendments that were going to be tabled, reflected five of our main demands:
- Extending the scope of the prohibition to cover all private as well as public actors;
- Ensuring that all uses of RBI (whether real-time or post) in publicly- accessible spaces are included in the prohibition;
- Deleting the exceptions to the prohibition, which independent human rights assessments confirm do not meet existing EU fundamental rights standards;
- Putting a stop to discriminatory or manipulative forms of biometric categorisation; and
- Properly addressing the risks of emotion recognition.
In June 2022, MEPs in the LIBE and IMCO Committees submitted ‘amendments’ to the AI Act showing the results and power of our actions: hundreds of amendments were tabled on biometrics, showing the importance MEPs put on this topic.
Amendments show major support for a ban
Who supported our demands?
In total, 177 MEPs across 6 out of the 7 political groups supported a stronger RBI ban in the AI Act!
- 24 MEPs, from across 5 political groups, were champions of the Reclaim Your Face campaign! They tabled amendments for a full and unequivocal ban on all types of remote biometric identification (RBI) in publicly-accessible spaces. Two things are to be highlighted from this group. 1) it includes several of those who are responsible for the AI Act on behalf of their political group (called ‘Rapporteurs’ or ‘Shadows’) – a strong sign of broad support. This means that in fact, those 24 individual MEPs represent a staggering 158 MEPs who demand a complete ban on biometric mass surveillance practices! 2) some of the MEPs tabled these amendments ‘on behalf of’ their entire political group.
- 18 MEPs went almost as far as their colleagues, supporting a full ban on ‘real-time’ RBI in publicly-accessible spaces, by all actors, and without conditions for exceptions. However, these MEPs did not propose to extend the ban to ‘post’ uses of RBI. Given that these MEPs clearly understand the threats and risks of biometric mass surveillance, this gives us good ground to go forward and convince them that ‘post’ uses are equally, if not even more, harmful than real-time uses.
- Dozens of MEPs additionally proposed two new and important bans. These explicitly prohibit the police from using private biometric databases, and the creation of biometric databases through mass/untargeted methods such as online scraping or the mass scraping of CCTV footage. If accepted, this would further protect people from biometric mass surveillance, particularly through the use of services like Clearview AI.
- Furthermore, 1 additional MEP supported removing all the exceptions to the RBI ban!
Who opposed our recommendations?
Opposition to a ban on RBI was very limited.
- Just three MEPs – all from the European People’s Party (EPP) – argued that RBI in publicly-accessible spaces should only be classified as high-risk, not prohibited. Nevertheless, it is notable that these MEPs still recognised that RBI is very risky.
- Separately, 14 MEPs supported a ban in principle, but added that it should be less restrictive. This includes both Shadow Rapporteurs for the EPP group, alongside 12 colleagues from the right-leaning Identity & Democracy (ID) group, European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group and their own EPP group.
Who said ‘yes, but…’?
7 additional MEPs from the ECR and EPP groups were ambivalent, putting forward some amendments which would strengthen the ban but also proposing amendments which would weaken it.
So what’s the balance in the European Parliament?
Overall, this is a really positive set of amendments. It shows clear and significant political will for a stronger ban on biometric mass surveillance, taking us a step closer to a genuine EU ban on these chilling practices.
The perspective of the Parliament is clear: we need a strong ban on biometric mass surveillance!
Among those calling for the most comprehensive form of a ban – which Reclaim Your Face has argued is necessary to protect people’s rights and freedoms – is MEP Brando Benifei from the S&D group. Mr Benifei is one of two MEPs who share the ultimate responsibility for the Parliament’s position on the AI Act, so his support for a full ban is very powerful and meaningful.
The other co-lead MEP is MEP Dragos Tudorache from the Renew group. He is one of the MEPs who supported all of our demands, except the one that would extend the ban to ‘post’ uses. Whilst we still, therefore, have work to do to convince Mr Tudorache and his colleagues, we can already see clear progress in his thinking. Last year he commented that he does not believe that a prohibition is the right approach to RBI. Now, Mr Tudorache says he agrees with us that RBI is a key human rights issue. His support is therefore also very important, and we believe that he will be open to learning more about how post uses of RBI pose a threat to organising, journalism and other civil freedoms.
We are also very proud of the commitment and effectiveness of organisations in the Reclaim Your Face. The amendments showed that the Parliament clearly listened and that the power of our joint actions is truly huge!
The fight is still far from over.
Whilst RBI in publicly-accessible spaces is a major part of biometric mass surveillance, practices such as biometric categorisation and emotion recognition (making predictions about people’s ethnicity, gender, emotions or other characteristics based on how they look or act) can also lead to biometric mass surveillance. That’s why we are also advocating for strong bans on both practices in the AI Act – which we are pleased to see have been put forward by several MEPs.
There is also a lot left to go in the political process. These amendments need to be turned into compromise amendments, and then voted on to ensure that the entire Parliament officially agrees. Only then will negotiations begin with the member state governments (Council), where more permissive home affairs ministers have clashed with more rights-protective justice ministers over whether to weaken or strengthen the RBI ban.
This emphasises why now, more than ever, we need to keep up the pressure at European and national levels to ensure that – when the AI Act is officially passed, likely in 2023 or 2024 – it bans biometric mass surveillance!