Europe Wants to Ban Facial Recognition — Take Note, America

Europe Wants to Ban Facial Recognition — Take Note, America
Photo: Ian Waldie, Getty Images

The European Parliament has called for EU lawmakers to institute a ban on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition, as well as other surveillance tools commonly used in the course of algorithm-driven predictive policing.

MEPs introduced and subsequently voted in favour of a measure that calls for a “permanent ban” on the use of “automated analysis and/or recognition” technologies by “police and judicial authorities in criminal matters” in public spaces. That includes tech that targets data collection from “gait, fingerprints, DNA, voice, and other biometric and behavioural signals.”

The measure also suggests the banning of facial recognition databases operated by private companies. Bans on facial recognition specifically should remain in place until the technology has evolved to be “rights compliant” and its results are “non-biased and non-discriminatory,” the measure states. A proper regulatory framework is also necessary to provide strict safeguards against misuse and strict democratic control and oversight,” it says.

While that all sounds pretty good, the measure is non-binding — so it doesn’t really signify anything yet except that a lot of European politicians wouldn’t mind if this happened. (In the EU system, Parliament can’t actually introduce legislation, only pass it. It’s the European Commission that is tasked with developing and introducing laws — after which, MEPs will vote to enact them or not.)

That said, Parliament is set to vote on an upcoming piece of legislation, the Artificial Intelligence Act, which is a gargantuan law designed to regulate the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence in Europe. Politico reports that one of the things that bill would do is limit the ability of police to use facial recognition technology in public spaces, unless it was necessary to fight “serious” crime, like terrorism. Thus, Parliament’s recent measure could be a good sign for a positive vote on the upcoming AI bill, the outlet notes.

Either way, it’s a potentially good sign for privacy rights in Europe — something that American legislators might want to think about.

In general, Europe has outpaced the U.S. when it comes to at least trying to introduce meaningful privacy protections for its citizens. The passage of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, in 2016, instituted a bevy of new regulations designed to protect Europeans from undue government snooping and corporate surveillance. Of course, whether that law is really all that effective at protecting privacy is another conversation altogether.

By contrast, the U.S. hasn’t even gotten its shit together enough to attempt to pass anything. Currently, there is no federal policy on the use of facial recognition technology by police. And while Congress spends an inordinate amount of time screaming at the heads of Facebook, Google, and Twitter about various things (including privacy violations), legislators have yet to translate that outrage into anything resembling concrete privacy reform — the kind that might include biometric surveillance regulations. Even if a federal privacy law were to materialise, privacy advocates have worried that Silicon Valley lobbyists would have undue influence over its contents — potentially leading to a “light touch” regulation that actually favours corporate and government surveillance rather than curtailing it.

Meanwhile, the sale of facial recognition systems to companies and governments has continued apace and is even projected to grow in the future. While the technology’s reputation was besmirched somewhat by the 2020 George Floyd protests and the subsequent rise of anti-police sentiment nationwide (companies like Amazon and Microsoft announced temporary moratoriums on the sale of their facial recognition lines, while others — like IBM — claimed that they would permanently stop selling the product), for the most part, the surveillance industry is doing fine. Companies like dystopian creepster Clearview AI have apparently continued to make a killing — selling to everyone from local U.S. police departments to depraved plutocrats to Walmart.