Week of actions: Reclaim Your Face Italy and the need for a real EU ban on biometric mass surveillance

During the second week of May 2022, Reclaim Your Face Italy held a week of actions for an EU ban on biometric mass surveillance in Milan, Torino and Como. They collected signatures on the streets of the 3 cities, joined an event organised by the Greens-European Free Alliance Group and made a field visit to Italy’s city, Como, the first one to implement facial recognition technology in a public park.

Background

In 2021, the Italian Data Protection Authority (DPA) rejected the police use of Automatic Image Recognition System (SARI). SARI is a real-time facial recognition system that was acquired by the Italian Police in 2017 and being under investigation by the Authority ever since. Albeit it is assured to never been used in real-time, this system was at the center of debate after it was revealed their intention to employ it to monitor arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers on the Italian coasts.

In its decision, the DPA argued that the system lacks a legal basis and, as designed, it would constitute a form of mass surveillance. Thanks to the actions of Hermes Center, Associazione Luca Coscioni, Certi Diritti, CILD, Eumans, info.nodes, The Good Lobby, Privacy Network, Progetto Winston Smith, and StraLi, a temporary ban on facial recognition technology in public spaces was introduced later. This moratorium will be in force until December 2023.

Now our Reclaim Your Face partners Hermes Center, Privacy Network, Certi Diritti, STRALI and CILD are fiercely campaigning to Ban Biometric Mass Surveillance in the EU.

Here are some of their latest actions!

Paper signature collection

On the 10th of May 2022, Reclaim Your Face hosted paper signature collection stands in three big cities of Italy: Milan, Torino, and Rome. This paper signature collection was organized by Hermes Center and two national Reclaim Your Face partners: StraLi and CILD. The activists were in front of Universities and in the city center to talk about the risks of biometric mass surveillance, giving out stickers, booklets, Reclaim Your Face T-shirts and bags.

Event with Greens-European Free Alliance Group

Colleagues from Hermes Center, Riccardo Coluccini and Davide Del Monte, joined as speakers for the event ‘Stop Biometric Surveillance – Time for an EU ban on biometric mass surveillance in public spaces’ to explain why Italy must carry on campaigning pushing for a real ban on biometric surveillance in the EU.

Visit in Como

Como was the first city to implement facial recognition technology in their park in 2019 through an offer by Huawei . The technology included also algorithms that detected different types of behaviours. Not coincidentally, in 2016 during the migration crisis, migrants were camping in this park waiting to cross the border.

After the work of activists and a journalistic investigation by Hermes Center colleagues Laura Carrer and Riccardo Coluccini, and researcher Philip Di Salvo, Como was obliged to shut down the system 2020.

In May 2022, together with representatives from the Greens- European Free Alliance Group and journalists from the Czech Republic, the researchers visited the park where Facial Recognition cameras were installed and talked about their investigation. While the cameras are still there, the Facial Recognition and other algorithmic functions are turned off at the moment. The Greens- European Free Alliance Group and Czech journalist later met with local journalist Andrea Quadroni who talked about the migrant crisis that hit Como in 2016.

The trip to Como is part of the Greens- European Free Alliance Group’s newly released mini-documentary while articles about the actions and results of Reclaim Your Face in Italy were published on national TV and radio station in the Czech Republic.

Reclaim Your Face impact in 2021

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.

Check out our video records.

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.

Thank you for supporting us!

People across Switzerland reclaim their faces and public spaces!

On 18 November, three of the organisations that have long championed the Reclaim Your Face campaign – Digitale Gesellschaft (CH), Algorithm Watch CH and Amnesty International (CH) – co-launched a brand new and exciting action in the fight to curtail the sinister rise of biometric mass surveillance practices across Europe!


Called ‘Gesichtserkennung stoppen’ (DE) / ‘Stop à la reconnaissance faciale’ (FR), this action calls on Swiss supporters to take a stand for human rights and oppose the expansion of facial recognition and related biometric mass surveillance in Switzerland.

The action, in the form of a petition, complements the long-running European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) run by the 65+ organisations in the Reclaim Your Face campaign. However, because EU laws limit those who can sign an ECI to those people who hold EU citizenship, our Swiss supporters have sadly been unable to make their opposition to a biometric mass surveillance society clear. Luckily, not any more!

The organisers explain why action is needed in Switzerland:

We have the right to move freely in public places without anyone knowing what we are doing. But automatic facial recognition allows us to be identified in the street at any time. We want to prevent such mass surveillance. Take a stand against automated facial recognition in public places in Swiss cities! Sign our petition today.”

So what are you waiting for? If you live or work in Switzerland, let the government know that you want to be treated as a person, not a walking barcode:

And if you do have EU citizenship (even if you’re a dual national) then you can give your voice legal weight by signing the ECI to ban biometric mass surveillance