Arguments Against Biometric Surveillance: “We Want to Protect Rights to Our Own Face and Body”   

Simultaneously with the ever greater use of mass biometric surveillance across the globe, voices touting its ban have been growing even louder. Experience from different European countries, especially EU member countries differs, as concluded on the panel “Video surveillance and facial recognition system implementation” which took place at this year’s Privacy Week under the auspices of NGO Partners Serbia.

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biometric surveillance

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

“We fully oppose biometric surveillance, no exceptions” 

Privacy Week is an annual event that takes place in the last week of January in Belgrade, upon the celebration of Data Privacy Day on January 28. The event focuses on debates regarding privacy and data protection with the experts from the civil, private and public sectors.  

Last year was marked by a serious discussion regarding biometric surveillance, namely mass video surveillance and the implementation of the facial recognition system. Side by side, this topic is discussed together with the Artificial Intelligence Act (Al Act) in EU countries and possible solutions for biometric surveillance in the EU. The Law is expected to be adopted by the end of spring 2023.  

According to EU Policy Analyst Caterina Rodelli, this law undoubtedly promotes Al but doesn’t protect basic human rights.  

“As a civil society, we have carefully read the Al Act and wanted the European Commission to explain the regulation to us. We noticed some positive elements but the way they were designed is problematic and discriminatory. In-built systems in video surveillance cameras can scan several people at the same time and analyze their movements and behaviors. The EU has decided to ban some of them and reiterated that there would be exceptions. We believe this to be highly problematic,” she warned. 

privacy week

Screenshot: Partneri Srbija (Youtube)

Ms Rodelli explains that policymakers would have the liberty to interpret the “exceptions” as they find fit and justify them as a security threat.  

“This means that the decision-makers, based on these video recordings, will be allowed to decide who is the suspect and who is the criminal. In some countries, the same system is used to prosecute climate activists, or migrants which is why we advocate the ban of the mass surveillance system, fully, without exceptions”, Caterina was clear.  

“We have nothing to hide but we have a lot to protect” 

And whilst European civil society organizations and groups for the protection of human rights warn of the negative impact of the implementation of biometric surveillance on human rights (including privacy, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression), EU policymakers are actively engaged in the adoption of unique regulations which would improve legal safety of citizens, as well as clear and applicable standards for EU member states. 

And this turned out to be a serious challenge, as explained by Senior Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi) Ella Jakubowska: 

“The facial recognition system, contrary to what the name suggests, is not only used for scanning citizens’ faces. It can also scan other features such as the way a person walks, sits in a chair, or how her/his weight is distributed, how they blink and so on. One thing is to use your face to unlock your phone because that’s your choice. Here we are talking about people not having a say in the matter when they are recorded and that becomes mass surveillance,” Ella adds.  

She pointed out an example of a supermarket purchase. Apparently, if citizens want to use this service, they will have to accept to be recorded, scanned and analyzed in a public space when they visit a supermarket. And not only that, these data will be used for advertising, namely citizens will be targeted and recommended a certain product, depending on the information collected by a supermarket video surveillance system.  

“An extreme example is a Spanish company that collects these data based on race. There is no way to justify it because race alone is not enough to conclude whether someone can be  considered a suspect or pose a security risk. This is very ominous and dangerous. Another example is the protection of access to user’s health data. In some countries, policies regarding reproductive organs and abortions are conservative and to know that you are followed when you want to access that kind of service, may bring the violation of your rights. We do not want our public places to become places where no one can maintain her/his anonymity. Politicians often say that you should not care if you have nothing to hide but the reality is that you have a lot to protect if you are considering the basic principles of democracy,” the panelist explains.    

“Mass surveillance is a profitable business, treating citizens as commodities” 

When you discuss the importance of adequate surveillance and public control over the processing of personal data by state and private elements, especially within societies in which the rule of law gets ignored, the decision-makers always rely on the same argument – that this is necessary for security purposes.  

However, the analysis of the situation in Romania implemented by NGO ApTi showed major irregularities in the tenders for the procurement of equipment and confirmed the suspicion that it is not necessarily citizens’ security at stake here.  

“In Romania, local self-government units ink agreements with local companies. Thus, a small municipality in the vicinity of Bucharest spent EUR 200,000 on three contracts. According to the information regarding this public procurement, the contracts included the procurement of 22 cameras per 1.000 residents of this municipality. Why would they do that? Why would they invest in that? Is there nothing more important to invest money in, such as schools and hospitals? It’s a profitable business, both for the private and the public sector, where we are considered a commodity. Thus, it’s cheap for businesses, it’s good for the politicians, and the connection between the two is usually corruption. When it comes to this data, companies that get contracts are those that have ties with ruling parties. It doesn’t come as such a surprise, does it? Can we trust them that they would be taking care of the safety of citizens?” ApTi Executive Director Bogdan Manolea wonders.  

bogdan manolea

Screenshot: Partneri Srbija (Youtube)

According to him, all these examples make us feel uncomfortable, which is a good thing, because we will then become aware of how serious it is.  

“If there is an infrastructure that collects video data of citizens on a daily basis, and if citizens get used to that, then the next step and adding facial or emotional recognition would represent such a small change that the majority won’t even understand. People see where’s the problem when it’s too late, after the misuse has already happened. It’s difficult to understand how can such a small camera affect their rights,” the panelist noticed.    

“Law should protect everybody’s rights, not only EU citizens” 

The risks of biometric identification are even greater for non-EU citizens. According to Caterina Rodelli, institutionalized forms of mass biometric surveillance are already in use, as well as the implementation of systems based on Al that immortalize discrimination and harassment of migrants and marginalized communities.  

“We pay a lot of attention to the ways in which the law affects migrants’ rights. We have prepared an analysis of how to adapt the law to protect everyone’s rights and not only EU citizens.  Politicians are not very supportive of this, for different reasons. It is an established practice – stir up some trouble, treat it as a security risk, migrants become suspicious, they want to exploit the system, the aid they are given etc. And then you have good enough reason to build systems and polygraphs to detect whether people are lying when, for example, they are explaining their motives for seeking asylum. These are some of the examples of very concerning uses we are fighting against, something that’s happening right now and people know nothing about it,” Rodelli explained.  

caterina rodelli

Screenshot: Partneri Srbija (Youtube)

Moreover, she warned that, in countries where mass surveillance is already introduced, mistakes occur within the system that might have serious consequences on the individual lives of people.  

“These systems cannot be beneficial under any circumstances. We perceive a lot of different kinds of dangers; one can be followed, or arrested by mistake because accuracy also becomes an issue when you manage such a huge database. A mistake is very likely and people were arrested based on erroneous recognition in the past. In addition, journalist sources can be revealed and compromised in this way, together with protesters in a public space, or anyone else really. It’s a fact that you own your body, and we want to preserve our right to our bodies and our faces, which is why we advocate the ban of the use of these systems,” the panelist concluded.  

Partners Serbia is a civil society organization dedicated to the improvement of the rule of law, development of civil society and institutional development in Serbia and the region, together with the strengthening of local capacities and utilization of the knowledge of local experts. For more than 10 years, they have been actively engaged in the protection of the privacy of citizens, education, campaigns and they also advocate improvement and the implementation of the law, launch procedures for the protection of legal rights and provide legal advice to citizens, companies and state bodies.  

A journalist by day and a podcaster by night. She's not writing to impress but to be understood.