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ECI: putting people’s voices before corporate greed

On 17 February 2021, EDRi with a coalition of 40 human rights and social justice groups launched a unique, officially-recognised EU petition, called a “European Citizens’ Initiative” (ECI). Here, we explain why and how this ECI is a powerful tool for our Reclaim Your Face campaign that aims to ban biometric mass surveillance, as well as for our wider European advocacy against harmful uses of artificial intelligence-based technologies.

By EDRi · February 24, 2021

For years, the EDRi network has exposed how people’s most sensitive identifying characteristics like our faces, fingerprints or the way we walk are unlawfully harvested on an industrial scale by European governments and corporations to make unfair judgements about us without our knowledge. Since May 2020, EDRi has become the leading pan-European voice pointing at the urgent need to ban uses of biometric technologies that lead to mass surveillance. Now, with the launch of our Reclaim Your Face campaign’s European Citizens’ Initiative, we are increasing the pressure on lawmakers to put our rights ahead of big businesses’ profits. 

Knock, knock, who’s there? ECI! … ECI Who!?

A European Citizens’ Initiative, or ECI, is uniquely powerful because it is the only form of direct democratic action that the EU puts at the disposal of its citizens. Through an ECI, a group of citizens can join together and call for the EU to propose a new law. In our case, we ask for a law that protects our rights to privacy and data protection by banning biometric mass surveillance practices. 

The most significant part of the ECI process is that, should we reach one million signatures by 1 May 2022, the European Commission is obliged to meet with us, to issue a formal Communication about our ECI, and may also ask the European Parliament to have a debate on it. In short, a successful ECI would ensure that a ban on biometric mass surveillance is firmly and inescapably put on the EU’s official agenda. In this case, the ECI will become an impactful tool to make our voices heard at the highest political levels in EU law-making. The next section explain ECI’s impact in more detail.

As a ECI can have such an immense impact, the ECI process is much more heavy than a regular internet petition. 

The EU requires that EU member states verify the support given by each person who signs the ECI to ensure that they are a citizen of an EU country and are old enough to vote in an EU election. To do this, they set requirements for the personal data that needs to be collected, and also put strict requirements on ECI organisers like us to make sure that our signature collection is done properly

The ECI as the voice of people in a debate dominated by corporate lobbyists

The ECI is a great tool for EDRi’s advocacy because it allows us to take the political debate straight to the people affected and translate it into the things that matter to each of us: protecting our families, communities, public spaces and democracies from threats of biometric mass surveillance. 

When we reach one million signatures, this will allow us to effect real, systemic legal change that will safeguard our privacy, our free expression, our dignity and our presumption of innocence from the harms of constantly being watched.

In the European Commission’s White Paper on AI, released in February 2021, EC law-makers called for a broad public debate on facial recognition. But they failed to take action to make this public debate happen. The most prominent voices in the debate so far have been the corporate lobbyists who benefit from a lack of strong laws. This is why the Reclaim Your Face coalition has stepped up to make sure that we hear the voices of the individuals and the communities that will be most affected by the use of these harmful, undemocratic and discriminatory technologies.

European Vice-President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager, said last year that we already have laws to protect people in Europe from biometric mass surveillance. She pointed to the general prohibition on the processing of biometric data under the EU’s data protection regime to justify the EU’s lack of legislative action. 

However, EDRi’s research has shown that the current framework has established a legal grey area that governments and corporations are taking advantage of. This has led to abuses of our data and infringements on our essential freedoms, which can only be resolved with a specific law to ban biometric mass surveillance across the EU.

We have seen the Commission, some Parliamentarians, and national governments alike shrug their shoulders and say that it is not up to them to decide on “no-go areas” for technology. We disagree – and so do the EU’s laws on data protection, privacy and other fundamental rights. 

With our ECI, we are not only raising awareness of the fact that some uses of technologies are so harmful that they should never be used, but also providing irrefutable evidence that people in Europe do not want to be treated as walking barcodes. We want to reclaim our faces, and ban biometric mass surveillance.

You can sign the ECI and find other ways to get involved at 

Explore EDRi's work on Biometric Mass Surveillance