Greek police plan to use facial recognition technology

Griechischer Polizist bei Personenkontrolle
The organization Homo Digitalis speaks of a “surveillance program” that conflicts with “the protection of fundamental rights.”
(Source: IMAGO / ANE Edition)

Police officers in Greece are to use wearable devices to match biometric data such as fingerprints in the future. This was reported on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) together with the Greek organization Homo Digitalis. They criticize that the project violates international human rights standards and warn against discrimination against minorities. The project is partly financed by EU funds.

The project, dubbed “Smart Policing,” will introduce devices whose software can match facial images, fingerprints as well as license plates with databases from 20 national and international agencies. A document from the Greek Ministry of Citizen Protection, to which HRW refers, lists Interpol, Europol, the Schengen Information System and the US FBI.

Human Rights Watch reports fingerprints would be deleted immediately if no match is found during the search. Facial images, on the other hand, would be stored for seven days. If the system finds a match, the data would be stored for an unspecified period.

An EU document about the project states that the system is to be used for identity checks. People without papers could be checked in real time using facial images and fingerprints. It could also be used to identify people or vehicles with links to terrorism, human trafficking or drug smuggling.

HRW sees significant intrusion into privacy

Human Rights Watch criticizes that the project in its planned form is not compatible with Greek and European law. For example, the collection of biometric data must be absolutely necessary, and a legal basis must exist.

In addition, the collection and processing of personal data must comply with international human rights standards, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. It must also protect the right to privacy. Any interference with this right must always be justified and proportionate. Greek authorities have other means at their disposal, such as enforcing immigration laws. The collection of biometric data, on the other hand, is a significant invasion of privacy. Greece should stop the “smart policing” project.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also guarantees the right to privacy. The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of and compliance with the Covenant, has determined that the collection of personal data must be regulated by law. Accordingly, individuals have the right to know what data is being stored and by whom.

HRW also sees a violation of the European data protection rules for law enforcement agencies: These state that the processing of “biometric data to uniquely identify” individuals may only take place if it is “strictly necessary.” In addition, there must be “safeguards for the rights and freedoms of the data subject.”

Discriminatory controls

Human Rights Watch warns that the technology could increase existing discrimination. The Greek police are authorized to stop people and ask for their identity papers – in other words, to carry out unprovoked checks on people. The organization accuses the police of targeting people on the basis of their supposed nationality or ethnicity. Migrants, asylum seekers and other marginalized groups are detained for hours even if they have documents.

The use of “smart policing” could expand such practices. Even the police expect an increase in daily checks. HRW is particularly critical of the use of biometric data. Facial recognition systems, for example, are considered unreliable. Studies have shown that they are less effective at recognizing people with dark skin, for example.

Human Rights Watch is therefore calling for the police to check the validity of ID cards without collecting biometric data. In addition, people should only be checked if there is a reasonable suspicion of illegal activities.

According to HRW, the plan first became public in 2017. Two years later, it said, a contract was then signed with Intracom Telecom, the company developing the system. It was originally scheduled to launch in early 2021, but was then postponed until August, it said. The contract with Intracom had been paid in full last year, but by the end of the year, HRW had no information on whether the Greek police were already using the equipment.

At the beginning of 2021, the organization AlgorithmWatch had also reported on the plans. According to this, at least 1000 devices are to be used at the beginning. In addition, there is the option to purchase 9000 more. The organization had criticized that the project could restrict civil liberties. Homo Digitalis also criticized the lack of a legal framework for the processing of biometric data in identity checks.

Data protection authority examines project

The “smart policing” project is expected to cost about 4.5 million euros, 75 percent of which will come from the EU’s Internal Security Fund, according to HRW.

Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW, criticized, “The European Commission is funding a program that will help Greek police to target and harass refugees, asylum seekers, and minority groups,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In a country where the police frequently demand to see documents without reasonable cause, this program would deliver a tech-driven tool to ramp up abuse.”

In December 2019, the organization Homo Digitalis requested information from the Greek Ministry of Citizen Protection about the legal basis for the project. The ministry had referred to a law that regulates the use of surveillance cameras in public spaces. However, the Greek data protection authority had ruled in summer 2020 that the law did not permit facial recognition or similar identification procedures. Homo Digitalis had then asked the authority to review the legality of the planned project, but a decision is still pending, according to HRW.

Human Rights Watch also sees Intracom as having a responsibility. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the company must ensure that its products do not contribute to human rights violations. (js)