Europe moves closer to a facial recognition ban – POLITICO

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Should the EU ban software capable of spotting a face in a crowd?

A growing political coalition thinks so – and has just received massive support from the third-largest group in the European Parliament, where a majority is now in favor of banning facial recognition technology that scans crowds indiscriminately and in time. real.

Support from Renew, which joins the Greens and Socialists and Democrats groups in backing a ban, shows how a growing swathe of Europe’s political leaders are in favor of restrictions on artificial intelligence that go far beyond anything that exists in other technologically advanced regions of the world. including the U.S. Last week, POLITICO obtained a document detailing a new civil liability law for AI apps — a pioneering step toward a legal regime for autonomous programs and devices.

“We will prohibit what we consider contrary to our values, the deployment [of biometric identification] in public spaces where we as Europeans believe we need to be safe from the risks of mass surveillance,” said Renew’s Dragoș Tudorache. “The dominant position in this house is to support the banning of this technology.”

Opponents of live facial recognition technology argue that such tools are favored by authoritarian governments in places like Russia and China hunts down dissidents or vulnerable minorities, and are ultimately dangerous to civil liberties. They also point to risks of racial profiling and invasion of privacy, which have led major companies like IBM, Amazon and Microsoft to suspend the sale of facial recognition tools to governments.

Yet even as the EU prepares to approve the world’s first AI regulation, the enthusiasm of EU lawmakers and some regulators for banning live facial recognition is likely to clash. to strong opposition from another group of interested parties – nation states that want to keep facial recognition technology in their security arsenals.

Interior ministers have worked hard to ensure that the EU’s artificial intelligence law, the Artificial Intelligence Act, does not tie their hands. And while the European Commission restricts the use of facial recognition in public places for businesses, it leaves broad exemptions for law enforcement to deploy the technology in cases such as the search for missing children, the prevention of terrorist attacks or the location of armed and dangerous criminals.

Mood changing

For Renew, also known as the Liberals, support for a ban grew slowly after some initial skepticism. But now they are lining up with lawmakers on the left to call for a ban on live facial recognition momentum.

“The mood has changed… In my group there is a majority that supports this idea of ​​a ban,” said Tudorache, who previously served as Romania’s interior minister.

Now Parliament’s chief negotiator on a new law on artificial intelligence, he does not want exemptions for police to use the technology in specific cases, as this would pose “very difficult oversight and accountability”.

European governments and companies have stepped up their experiments with facial recognition. Biometric algorithms aimed at matching faces to databases in real time can use existing networks of public cameras.

The growing consensus in the European Parliament has isolated centre-right lawmakers from the European People’s Party who lobbied to open up more possibilities for the police to use facial recognition | Geneviève Engel/European Union

This worries Europe’s data protection watchdog, the EDPS, which last year called for a ban on any facial recognition of individuals in public spaces that breaches fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of movement. .

And more than 50 European campaign groups have tried to convince lawmakers of a ban.

“If it’s allowed to be used even for exceptional purposes, that means the infrastructure will be there and you as a citizen will never know if it’s on,” said NGO activist Daniel Leufer. Access Now. “This technology has no place in a society committed to democracy and fundamental rights.”

Liberal lawmakers are closer to common ground than their colleagues on the left, the Socialists and Democrats and the Greens, who want to go even further and ban all facial recognition and the creation of biometric databases that collect photos on social networks.

The growing consensus in the European Parliament has isolated centre-right lawmakers from the European People’s Party who have pushed in the opposite direction to open up more options for police to use facial recognition.

Convince EU countries

The real challenge to a facial recognition ban comes from EU governments sitting on the EU Council, where some countries like France fear that banning the technology could seriously undermine public safety. With fresh memories of the terrorist attacks of the past few years and plans to host the Olympics next year, Paris wants to have all the tools possible.

French judges are backing the top administrative court saying it would be wrong to ban technology that could help identify a known terrorist in a large crowd at a mass event.

While Germany has pushed for tough restrictions on the technology, in general, EU governments have worked to ensure that the new AI law will not severely restrict the activities of security forces. order.

According to the latest draft changes to the law by EU countries and seen by POLITICO, European capitals are pushing to add more exemptions for law enforcement. Beyond searching for kidnapping victims and crime suspects, they would like police to be able to use real-time facial recognition to prevent any “substantial threat” to critical infrastructure as well. European governments could reach their final position before the end of the year, according to two European diplomats.

For now, left-wing and liberal lawmakers are focused on maintaining their momentum for a ban on facial recognition until the European Parliament formally secures its position in a vote by the end of the day. end of the year.

German liberal Svenja Hahn stressed that tense negotiations were still ongoing on such a sensitive subject.

“It will be one of the most intense battlegrounds,” she said. “Law enforcement is hoping facial recognition is a magic wand to fight crime, but it’s not, there’s a high risk of discrimination.”

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