Reclaim Your Face – A European Citizens Initiative to ban biometric mass surveillance

A large coalition of civil society organizations, among them AlgorithmWatch and AlgorithmWatch Switzerland, have come together in a European movement that demands a ban on biometric recognition systems that enable mass surveillance. Earlier this year, it also launched a European Union Citizens Initiative, calling on the EU to ban biometric mass surveillance - such as automated face recognition in public spaces.

The vast increase in the deployment of biometric technologies across Europe, in particular face recognition, was a major finding of our Automating Society Report 2020. It’s deployment is arguably the newest, quickest, and most concerning development in Europe.

Biometric mass surveillance is any monitoring, tracking, and otherwise processing of the biometric data of individuals or groups in an indiscriminate or arbitrarily-targeted manner. Under European data protection law, biometric data are especially sensitive. Such data are linked to our individual identities, and can be used to infer protected and intimate information about who we are, our health, and more. When used to scan everyone in public or publicly-accessible spaces (a form of mass surveillance) or in situations of large imbalances of power, biometric processing violates a wide range of fundamental rights. It can have a ‘chilling effect’ on basic freedoms such as expression and assembly. Profiling based on the processing of such data can result in severe violations of the right to non-discrimination.

Face recognition, the most common form of biometric surveillance, is being trialed and deployed at an alarming rate throughout Europe. It is present in schools, stadiums, airports, and even in casinos. It is also used for predictive policing, to apprehend criminals, and, regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, to enforce social distancing, both in apps and through “smart” video-surveillance. In Germany, the police experimented with biometric mass surveillance on people traveling through Berlin’s Südkreuz station, and surveilled G20 protesters in Hamburg. The infamous facial recognition company ClearviewAI was proven to have illegally mass collected and used the pictures of people living in Germany from the internet in order to feed their databases.

What’s more, new deployments of biometric surveillance systems continue even in the face of mounting evidence of their lack of accuracy and, for systems that claim to predict emotions or behaviour, their lack of reliable scientific foundation. And when challenges emerge, proponents of these systems simply try and find their way around them. This trend, if not challenged, risks normalizing the idea of being constantly – and opaquely – watched, thus crystallizing a new status quo of pervasive mass surveillance.

ReclaimYourFace is a European movement that brings people’s voices into the discussion around biometric data used to monitor the population. It questions why these sensitive data are being used, and raises the alarm on the impact on our freedoms in public spaces.

In February 2021, it also started a European Citizens Initiative – open for signature to all EU-citizens – calling on the EU Commission to ban such practices. We urge the Commission to act now, and propose a legal act to ensure that EU law explicitly and specifically prohibits biometric mass surveillance. In particular, it must prohibit indiscriminate or arbitrarily-targeted uses of biometrics which can lead to unlawful mass surveillance. Otherwise these systems can and will be used anywhere, against each of us, by governments and corporations - based on who we are and what we look like.

If you are a EU-citizen: