EDRi joins 178 organisations in global call to ban biometric surveillance

From protesters taking to the streets in Slovenia, to the subways of São Paulo; from so-called “smart cities” in India, to children entering French high schools; from EU border control experiments, to the racialised over-policing of people of colour in the US. In each of these examples, people around the world are increasingly and pervasively being subjected to toxic biometric surveillance. This is why EDRi has joined the global Ban Biometric Surveillance coalition, to build on our work in Europe as part of the powerful Reclaim Your Face campaign.

All human beings, wherever they are in the world, have a right to live with respect for their private lives. Yet wherever you look, people are being subjected to the unnecessary, intrusive and degrading processing of their biometric data. In every global region, we are witnessing government and corporate actors wantonly experimenting with people’s facial, bodily and behavioural data as a way to watch, track and analyse each of us – frequently in violation of international and regional human rights norms.

In doing so, these police forces, public authorities and private companies are obliterating our ability to participate anonymously in democratic processes and speak freely. They are exacerbating and amplifying existing discriminatory structures in society. The EDRi network has long raised our collective voice against any uses of people’s biometric characteristics where they lead to mass surveillance or other undue infringements of people’s rights, which we call biometric mass surveillance practices.

One of the best-known use cases of biometric mass surveillance is remote public facial recognition. We’re also seeing a worldwide rise in the tracking of people through other characteristics like their walking pattern (aka ‘gait’), as well as the highly concerning prediction of people’s gender identity, sexuality, emotional state or ethnicity using their biometric characteristics – all of which lack credible scientific basis and perpetuate harmful practices and stereotypes.

It’s high time to ban this “BS” worldwide

The new global movement, coined the #BanBS [Ban Biometric Surveillance] coalition, is led by international digital rights organisation and EDRi member Access Now, with the support of EDRi and other international human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Internet Freedom Foundation (India) and Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor, IDEC (Brazil). The existence of this group is founded around a simple premise:

“Some surveillance technologies are so dangerous that they inevitably cause far more problems than they solve. The use of facial recognition and remote biometric technologies in publicly accessible spaces enables mass surveillance and discriminatory targeted surveillance. In such cases, the potential for abuse is too great, and the consequences too severe. We must ban such practices once and for all.”

The coalition launched in early June 2021 with over 175 organisations alongside leading academics, technologists and activists, representing an incredible 55 countries. In a powerful opening statement, the group demands that policy and lawmakers in every country stop their own biometric surveillance practices and adopt laws which prohibit others from doing it, too. Court and judicial officers, administrative agencies, International Organisations, private companies, tech workers, investors and donors do not escape the coalition’s focus, and are called upon to take measures and actions as they are able to within their particular competence.

Why this is so important in a European context

The #BanBS coalition matters for EDRi’s advocacy in Europe because it provides us with additional momentum and evidence of the need for action, which we can put forward to the European institutions (especially the European Parliament and the EU Council) as they go through negotiations on the proposed EU Artificial Intelligence Act, the draft of which currently seriously fails to protect people from biometric mass surveillance.

Whilst some EU policymakers have dismissed the demands of the Reclaim Your Face campaign as unrealistic, this new global coalition shows that there is nothing niche about banning biometric mass surveillance. Instead, we demonstrate that people around the world – including many minoritised communities that are most harmed by biometric surveillance – are rising up for change. Together we are more powerful, and by uniting for digital justice across regions, the wins of each of us in the #BanBS coalition will add momentum to one another.

The extensive reach of the #BanBS coalition also serves as a powerful reminder that when it comes to justice, the EU’s obligations already extend beyond its borders. Investigations undertaken by the EDRi network show that EU agencies’ and Member States’ biometric mass surveillance practices are already seriously harming people both within and outside the EU. From sinister and exploitative biometric experiments at EU borders, to “smart” systems which target people on the move and in precarious situations in Italy, the EU has long perceived third-country nationals (people that aren’t EU citizens) as ‘fair game’ for rights-violating biometric experimentation.

Furthermore, many EU countries, such as Italy and the Netherlands, already keep mass biometric databases of ‘aliens’ – or more accurately, people whose only ‘crime’ is being foreign. Such practices are underpinned by an ideology that we see throughout those deploying biometric surveillance: that everyone is a potential suspect. This violates the EU’s own fundamental right to the presumption of innocence, and many other crucial rights to due process and justice. There are also EU companies who export their biometric technologies around the world, including to regions which lack proper fundamental rights protections, meaning that we cannot consider the impacts of the EU’s biometric surveillance market without taking a global approach.

Additionally, when we consider that already there is a significant divide between those in the global north who tend to most profit from artificial intelligence developments, compared to those in the global south – where both people and natural resources are most exploited by the ideology of ever-growing AI development – it becomes clear that those of us in Europe cannot achieve AI or biometric justice in isolation. We must stand together to make sure that each of us can live in freedom, respect and dignity for who we are.

Image credit: Access Now

(Contribution by:)

Ella Jakubowska

Policy Advisor

Twitter: @ellajakubowska1

Sign the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)

If you're an EU citizen, you can help us change EU laws by signing the official #ReclaimYourFace initiative to ban biometric mass surveillance practices:

This is not a regular petition, but an official “European Citizens’ Initiative” (ECI) run by EDRi on behalf of the European Commission. This means your signature must be officially verified by national authorities, according to each EU country’s specific rules. We cannot control the data that they require, since it is required by Regulation (EU) 2019/788 on the European citizens’ initiative for the purpose of confirming your signature. We can only use the information that you provide in Step 2 to contact you with updates, if you choose to enter it. Furthermore, our ECI signature collection system has been verified by the German Federal Information Security Office (BSI) to ensure it is compliant with the EU’s Regulation on ECIs. Please see our “Why ECI?” page for further details, and check out our privacy policy.

This ECI is open to all EU citizens, even if you currently live outside the EU (although there are special rules for Germany). Unfortunately if you are not an EU national, the EU’s official rules say that you cannot sign. Check https://reclaimyourface.eu other ways than non-EU citizens can help the cause.

Note to German citizens: It is possible to sign our ECI petition if you live outside the EU, but German rules mean that for German citizens specifically, your signature will only be valid if you are registered with your current permanent residence at the relevant German diplomatic representation. If you are not registered, then unfortunately your signature will not be counted. You can read more information about the rules. This rule does not apply to citizens of any other EU country.

Legally, if we reach 1 million signatures (with minimum thresholds met in at least 7 EU countries) then the European Commission must meet with us to discuss our proposal for a new law. They must then issue a formal communication (a piece of EU soft law) explaining why they are or are not acting on our proposal, and they may also ask the European Parliament to open a debate on the topic. For these reasons, a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a powerful tool for getting our topic onto the EU agenda and showing wide public support for banning biometric mass surveillance practices.

Learn more about the campaign to ban biometric mass surveillance practices at our official website

Reclaim Your Face