Big brother at the Prague airport. The state refuses to explain how the biometric camera system works

When Václav Mach, collaborator of the Czech digital-legal organization, an EDRi member, Iuridicum Remedium (IuRe) and law student at the University of Olomouc, asked the state for more detailed information on the use of smart biometric cameras at Prague's Václav Havel Airport, he obtained just general phrases. "They kept secret what they could. Their non-transparency doesn’t add to their credibility,“ he says in an interview with HlídacíPes.org. The article below is a summary of the more extensive interview, translated from Czech into English by EDRi member IuRe.

By Iuridicum Remedium (IuRe) (guest author) · November 17, 2021

In the Czech Republic, we can find biometric cameras only at Prague’s Václav Havel Airport. But they are also being talked about in connection with Prague public transport or with football stadiums. Do you have any personal experience with them?

Not just me. Everyone who has passed through the airport since 2018 has experience with them. There are about 3.6 million passengers who checked in the last year, a Covid year it was, but there are also hundreds of thousands of other people who moved just through the pre-transit area. All of them were recorded by biometric cameras, which captured their personal data, which was then somehow processed by the Foreign Police. And that’s where the trail ends because the processed data cannot be accessed.

But you have tried to access it…

Yes. I was returning from the Canary Islands to Prague, and since I was walking through the terminals where these cameras are installed, I requested the data from the Foreign Police. I don’t know my biometric data myself, I have never measured them and I was interested in what they learned about me in this way. At the same time, I requested camera recordings on which I was captured. I requested this on the basis of the Personal Data Processing Act, according to which security forces are obliged to provide us with the information they store on us unless it is a part of a criminal proceeding. According to this law, we also have the right to ask them to delete it.

What did you learn about yourself?

Nothing. The Personal Data Processing Act gives security forces a legal period of sixty days to process the request, but the Foreign Police have told me that they no longer have my records and data because they only store it for thirty days. It follows that if they do not want to, then one doesn’t have the opportunity to get to know his biometric data processed by the security forces. However, he has the right to know all this, as well as the legal reason why his personal data is being processed, for what purpose and who has access to it.

You mentioned the organization Iuridicum Remedium, for which you wrote an analysis on this topic. In it, you’re saying that by introducing a biometric camera system at Prague Airport, the Czech Republic is violating European legislation. On what basis do you think that?

European legislation, in particular the Data Protection Directive on law enforcement, orders member states to introduce an obligation to carry out a personal data protection impact assessment. Biometric cameras in public spaces are, by their nature, always subject to this obligation, yet in the case of Prague Airport, no assessment has been made.

How come?

The Czech Republic has implemented this obligation in the Personal Data Processing Act, but it came into force only after the biometric recognition system was launched at the airport. The Czech police, therefore, claim that they aren’t violating anything under Czech law, as the legal obligation did not apply at the time and European directives do not have direct effect.

However, they do have an implementation period and this directive expired before the start of processing of personal data in Prague. This means that the directive already had a direct effect at that time, and they had to comply with it at the time the system was launched, even though our legislators did not manage to process it in time.

The article was first published by Hlídacípes in Czech here.

(Contribution by: Jan Žabka, Editor, Hlídacípes)