A sturdy coalition, research reports, investigations, coordination actions and gathering amazing political support at national and EU level. This was 2021 for the Reclaim Your Face coalition – a year that, despite happening in a pandemic – showed what the power of a united front looks like.
Forming a coalition in a strategic moment
In January 2021, a group of civil society organisations were meeting every 2 weeks to strategise and plan what has become one of the most politically–powerful campaigns: Reclaim Your Face.
Set on a mission from October 2020, the coalition of then 12 organisations came together to form the Reclaim Your Face coalition, aiming to ban biometric mass surveillance in Europe. Since then we welcomed dozens more organisations, which work on digital rights and civil liberties, workers’ rights, the rights of Roma and Sinti people, LGBTQ+ rights, media freedom and the protection of migrants and people on the move. We gathered activists, volunteers, technologists, lawyers, academics, policy-makers – all united in one common goal.
The launch of the campaign happened at a strategic moment when the EU began its work on a law proposal to regulate artificial intelligence (AI). The relevance and timing of the Reclaim Your Face campaign is unquestionable as AI techniques are at the centre of today’s biometric surveillance technologies such as facial recognition.
Raising awareness of the spread and harms of biometric mass surveillance
For the people in the Reclaim Your Face coalition, 2021 started with a strong focus on raising awareness about the harms associated with biometric mass surveillance. More, we showed this exploitative practice is a reality in many cities across Europe and not a dystopian fiction story.
Researching biometric mass surveillance
EDRi’s Brussels office and the leading organisations of the campaign coordinated research: mapping both technology deployments and legal frameworks that govern (or not) biometric mass surveillance practice in some EU countries.
Coordinating pandemic-proof actions
In 2021, we also coordinated online and offline actions that enabled every campaign supporter to act as part of a powerful collective. The pandemic put constraints on realising such actions, however, the creative hive mind behind the campaign made it happen!
The #PaperBagSociety stunt sparked curiosity and started discussions among curious minds as Reclaim Your Face activists wore paper bags on their heads in public spaces as a sign of protest. The #WalkTheTalk Twitter storm united activists across the Atlantic in calling on the EU Commissioner Vestager and the US Secretary Raimondo to not negotiate our rights in their trade discussions.
Politically, our success has been clear
Our European Citizens Initiative has been positioned as “perhaps the most politically powerful” of all to date. Thank you to the almost 65,000 EU citizens who have supported it so far!
Firstly, together we successfully set the agenda of the debate on AI. Not only were the words “ban” and “remote biometric identification” (a prominent technique that leads to biometric mass surveillance) included in the AI Act law proposal, but many EU and national affairs newspapers acknowledged the importance of the topic and reported heavily on it.
Secondly, we gathered support from several influential bodies that also called for a ban: EU’s top data protection regulators (the EDPS and EDPB), the Green Group in the EU Parliament, as well as Germany’s newly elected government, several national data protection authorities and UN officials. Our impact is also evident in the report Members of the EU Parliament adopted, calling for a ban on biometric mass surveillance by law enforcement.
Through our coalition, we successfully applied pressure on national governments that tried to sneak in laws that enabled biometric mass surveillance in Serbia and Portugal. In Italy, Reclaim Your Face campaigners helped to catalyse a moratorium on facial recognition, and in Hamburg, data protection authorities agreed with us that the use of EU citizens’ face images by ClearviewAI is illegal.
Moving ahead in 2022, the Reclaim Your Face coalition is aiming to expand its reach, bringing together even more organisations fighting against biometric mass surveillance. We will train the many volunteers who have offered their support and reach a new level of political engagement.