Facial recognition in European cities – What you should know about biometric mass surveillance

As an effort to promote privacy and human rights in the EU, we at Greens/EFA got together with a team of international experts to understand where biometric mass surveillance, like facial recognition, is put to use this very moment in different European cities and states.

Keep reading to find out what we learned, and why must take action to ban the use of these technologies now – before it is too late.

Bye bye privacy – Current practices of biometric mass surveillance in the EU

Biometric mass surveillance wrongfully reports large numbers of innocent citizens systematically discriminates against under-represented groups and has a chilling effect on a free and diverse society.

If not regulated, they have the potential to change our societies fundamentally. This is why we must stop them before it’s too late. More and more people are standing up against the deployment of these technologies. In the United States, lawmakers have already started to impose bans on the use of some of the most invasive forms of algorithmic decision-making software: namely facial recognition technologies.

In the European Union, on the other hand, governments are beginning to experiment with systems of facial recognition and other biometric mass surveillance technologies in public spaces. With the upcoming Artificial Intelligence Regulation, the European Union has the chance to safeguard our fundamental rights and to ban biometric surveillance technologies that magnify the discrimination that women, people of colour and other marginalised groups in the European Union already face today.

What is biometric mass surveillance?

Biometric mass surveillance is the monitoring, tracking, and otherwise processing of the biometric data of individuals or groups in an indiscriminate or arbitrarily targeted manner. Biometric data includes highly sensitive data about our body or behaviour. When used to scan everyone in public or publicly accessible spaces (a form of mass surveillance) biometric processing violates a wide range of fundamental rights.

We have long called for a ban on these highly intrusive and error-prone technologies in publicly accessible spaces. This week, we published a large study and mapping of the current practices in the EU, which shed light on how these privacy-infringing practices have already been put into use in cities, and even entire countries in the European Union. The study is online here, the pdf of the study can be found here .

The study also provides recommendations on how these technologies should be regulated. The study also gives the reader a closer look at seven case studies of the use of biometric mass surveillance technologies in the EU.

Keep reading to learn more about them!

Mapping Mass Surveillance – Can we still hide?

Our map shows that different technologies are being tested or implemented across Member states, often without most citizens even knowing about it. Our lives are being tracked without our consent, and our personal data, also those of children and youth, saved without our knowledge.

What could this look like in real life?

These seven cases below paint a daunting picture on the use of these technologies in cities across Europe. Let’s have a closer look.

The Dragonfly project, Hungary (2019 – Present)

Hungary’s 35 000 CCTV cameras now operate as part of a single centralised searchable system, and its biometric databases have been connected, allowing police to identify any citizen from their face. The Hungarian Secret Services and police have already made use of the system, resulting in 6000 matches, 250 stop-and-searches and 4 arrests.

Mannheim , Germany (2018 – Present)

In Mannheim, the local police installed cameras that were designed to record moving patterns of individuals, with software analysing the movement patterns for suspicious behaviour. The software reports numerous false positives, mistaking hugs for suspicious behaviour.

Nice, France (2017 – Present)

The Mayor of Nice sought to make it a “laboratory” for testing biometric mass surveillance, investing heavily. The tests were criticised heavily by the French Data Protection Authority. Further deployments in schools, and through an app that allowed citizens to film other citizens were shut down following legal rulings against them.

Rotterdam, Netherlands (2019 – 2021)

In October 2019, a courtyard in a neighbourhood in Rotterdam was equipped with cameras and microphones designed to detect suspicious movement and trajectories and to react, influencing the behaviour of the suspect. The technology was unsuccessful, posed legal issues, and failed to reconcile privacy and efficiency. The test ended in 2021.

Brussels, Belgium (2017 – 2019)

Brussels International Airport used four cameras connected to a facial recognition to capture and isolate faces, then check them against a blacklist. The technology was ineffective, with features such as skin colour or facial hair leading to numerous false positives. The system has since been suspended, as the system had been ruled to be operating without legal basis.

Hamburg, Germany (2017 – 2020)

Hamburg Police began using facial recognition technology to profile protestors following the G20 protests. This resulted in a three-year legal battle with the Hamburg Data Protection Supervisor.

Südkreuz, Germany (2017 – 2018)

At Südkreuz Train Station in Berlin, German Federal Police used technology to match faces in CCTV footage with high quality photos of individuals. The test lasted until 2018 and was found to create a significant number of false positives.

Our demand is clear: Ban biometric mass surveillance now!

We don’t want to live in a society in which people are tracked, judged and classified based on their appearance and behaviour. This is what the research suggests:

  • The EU should prohibit the deployment of both indiscriminate and “targeted” Remote Biometric and Behavioural Identification technologies in public spaces, as well as ex-post identification. The analysis shows that both practices, even when used for “targeted surveillance” amount to mass surveillance.
  • The EU should strengthen transparency and promote the reinforcement of robust accountability mechanisms for biometric surveillance systems.
  • The EU should promote individual rights under the GDPR through the promotion of digital-rights-by-design technologies, and ensure effective enforcement of GDPR purpose limitation.
  • The EU should support voices and organisations which are mobilised for the respect of EU fundamental rights. Supporting civil society organisations that operate in the sector of digital rights is instrumental for a healthy democratic debate and oversight. Civil society needs to be able to participate in all relevant legislative and other decision-making procedures.
  • The EU should take into account the global dimension of the Biometric and Behavioural Analysis Technology Industry. EU policy needs to consider its impact both inside and outside of Europe.

We need the European Commission to impose a ban of biometric mass surveillance technologies throughout the European Union and to acknowledge the adverse effect of biometric surveillance methods on our fundamental rights.