EU Parliament votes for ban on facial recognition

EU Parliament
While the current vote is not legally binding, it sends a clear message. (Quelle: Diliff – CC BY-SA 3.0

The European Parliament has spoken out strongly against mass surveillance using automated facial recognition and other biometric recognition techniques. On Tuesday, MEPs voted in favour of a resolution calling on the EU Commission to ban such AI-enabled systems in public spaces. MEPs also call for an end to EU-funded development of such technologies.

The resolution (in German) is not legally binding. However, it does put pressure on the EU Commission, which does not want to ban automated facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technologies, only restrict them. With 259 votes in favour, 403 against and 30 abstentions, the vote was clear. The CDU/CSU MPs were the only Germans to vote against a ban; SPD, Greens, Left, FDP, Die Partei and Pirates voted in favour, the AFD members abstained.

With the resolution, MEPs also call for “funding to cease for research, operations or programmes related to biometric identifiers” if they could be used for mass surveillance in public spaces.

In addition to facial recognition, biometric recognition systems also include technologies that can recognise people by their gait, fingerprints or voice, for example.

Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer wrote (in German) of a “historic success for the movement to prevent a dystopian future of biometric mass surveillance similar to the Chinese model in Europe”. Biometric surveillance had not been able to prevent a terrorist attack in “a single case”. Instead, the technologies captured many innocent citizens and discriminated against “underrepresented groups”.

Data protectionists issue warning

As late as Monday, 25 MPs from different parliamentary groups had sent a open letter to their colleagues. In it, they called for the rejection of biometric surveillance.

In June, the European Data Protection Supervisor and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) also warned of the dangers of biometric recognition techniques in public spaces. In a joint statement, they also advocated an EU-wide ban due to “extremely high risks”.

The Reclaim Your Face initiative has been trying to enforce a ban on biometric mass surveillance (in German) since February. On its website, it is trying to collect one million signatures so that the EU Commission has to deal with the demand. The citizens’ initiative is supported by over 40 organisations – including the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), Digitalcourage, Access Now and Amnesty International. It has not yet reached the required number of signatories.

Ella Jakubowska of European Digital Rights (EDRi), who are also involved in Reclaim Your Face, commented to the news site “The majority of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have made it unequivocally clear that surveillance is not synonymous with security and that they do not support biometric mass surveillance practices.”

Negotiations are now on the agenda

With its decision, the Parliament contradicts the previous direction of the EU Commission and the Presidency of the Council of the EU. In April, the Commission presented a draft regulation on the use of artificial intelligence (in German). Although it provides for stronger regulation of high-risk applications, it contains a large number of exceptions for biometric real-time surveillance, in which facial recognition would remain permitted.

In June, the EU Council Presidency had spoken out against a ban (in German) on automated biometric surveillance in public spaces. Among other things, it warned of financial losses for companies in the security technology sector.

The final legislative bill must now be negotiated by Parliament, Commission and Council in trilogue. (hcz)