Your face rings a bell : How facial recognition poses a threat for human rights
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‘The greatest danger still lies ahead, with the refinement of artificial intelligence capabilities, such as facial and pattern recognition.’ (Edward Snowden) In 2013, Edward Snowden published historical revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) that caused an uproar on the political class, the media and the general population. The Snowden revelations brought to light the most invasive and extensive mass surveillance capabilities by a government known to date, one that we would have only expected to be reserved for the most tyrannical governments in a dystopian future. On the bright side, these revelations increased the awareness of privacy and data protection rights and accelerated the discussions on the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union (EU), strengthening the arguments of privacy and data protection activists. Moreover, the revelations also added new views on whether, in the race of the so-called ‘war on terror’, intelligence services had gone just too far. Since then, public authorities in Europe and elsewhere have expressed the need to reinforce privacy and data protection rights, and analyse the counterbalances of intelligence services with fundamental rights safeguards. Years after the Snowden revelations came out, stories started to appear in the media about the use of technologies in China that used invasive biometric recognition patterns for apparent ‘convenient’ uses in ATMs or, sometimes more bluntly, directly designed to suppress human rights and legal dissent. The general tone of the news from the Western media regarding the use of face recognition systems and biometrics, especially if the news related to the deployment of social score systems in China, was of (understandable) alarm. The underlying idea that no one had to even mention is that something even remotely like that could not happen in advanced democracies. Today, around 15 European countries have deployed (in trial or full phase) facial recognition systems and other biometric technologies used for live remote identification in publicly accessible spaces. When initially deployed, these systems escaped the attention of the media. But, around February 2019, the first scandals started to emerge in Europe and the United States (US). In the US several cities (Oakland, Berkeley, Somerville, Massachusetts, San Francisco and others ) banned such practices. In Europe, where generalised data protection, privacy laws and specialised human rights courts exist, the response was silence. The only exception to this radio silence happened, paradoxically, when these systems were under threat. When a leak of the European Commission (EC) Artificial Intelligence White Paper considered to launch a similar ban in the EU (only to be discarded a few lines later in the same document) the topic became something worth discussing for a couple of weeks.