EU Ponders Facial Recognition Ban

A potential temporary ban of the biometrics technology in public places

The EU is considering a ban of facial recognition in public places for up to five years, including at parks, tourist hot spots and sports venues. The thought behind the plan is that this will provide lawmakers with the time they need to come up with legislation to regulate the use of the technology. Exceptions of the ban could be for research and security projects. EU digital and antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager is expected to present her proposals at the end of February 2020.

The plan by the EU’s executive arm is set out in an 18-page report. The reasoning for the ban on facial recognition stems from the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which states that citizens should have “the right not to be subject of a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling”.

In the UK, there have been calls from politicians and campaigners for law enforcement to stop using live facial recognition technology for public surveillance. This was in response to the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office in 2018 launching an investigation into the use of facial recognition technology at King’s Cross in London, to track commuters and visitors without their knowledge or consent, deeming the practice a “potential threat to privacy that should concern us all”.

The EU has long been wary of artificial intelligence advancing quickly while legislation still lags, to the detriment of its citizens’ privacy. If the new draft is implemented as a regulation, all EU countries will have to halt plans for implementing artificial intelligence-enhanced surveillance. This would include Germany’s plan to place such systems at train stations, airports and other public locations, as well as similar initiatives in Spain and France.

It’s worth noting how the growing trepidation of using facial recognition technology in the EU counters the trend in some other areas of the world, particularly China where authorities have wholeheartedly embraced the technology (see, for example, Facial Recognition Creeps Further into China). In the past 12 months, the Chinese government has made significant investments in facial recognition technology as part of its security measures. There are reportedly close to 200 million surveillance cameras operating in China, with plans to double that number by the end of 2020. This move to expand the reach of the technology has prompted fears about privacy, but the Chinese government has maintained that it wants to protect its citizens from online threats.

Earlier in 2020, lawmakers in the US also called for restraints on the federal government’s use of facial scans. The move comes amid a global debate about the technology, which is widely used by law enforcement agencies to profile its citizens. Governments and regulators will continue to wrangle over the use of biometrics, searching for the right balance between security and privacy. It’s a debate that’s just starting. The technology won’t reverse its course, so regulation will have to catch up.