Initial wins in Italy just two months after the launch of Reclaim Your Face

Last week, the #ReclaimYourFace campaign reached two important milestones at the national level. On Friday April 16th the Italian Data Protection Authority (DPA) rejected the SARI Real Time facial recognition system acquired by the police saying that the system lacks a legal basis and, as designed, it would implement a form of mass surveillance.

Last week, the #ReclaimYourFace campaign reached two important milestones at the national level. On Friday April 16th the Italian Data Protection Authority (DPA) rejected the SARI Real Time facial recognition system acquired by the police saying that the system lacks a legal basis and, as designed, it would implement a form of mass surveillance. Two days earlier, a member of the Italian Parliament, Filippo Sensi, proposed a moratorium on the use of video surveillance tools that use facial recognition.

The Automatic Image Recognition System (SARI) was initially acquired by the Italian police in 2017 and, according to the police, the real-time version has never been used. The system was under investigation by the DPA since November 2017, after being prompted by a news article. Hermes Center had been putting pressure on the DPA to swiftly conduct the investigation. Recently, this system was at the center of a new public tender with the aim of upgrading and employing it to monitor arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers on the Italian coasts.

The opinion published by the Italian DPA highlights the fact that “SARI Real Time would carry out a large-scale automated processing of data that may also concern people attending political and social events, who are not the object of ‘attention’ by the police forces.” In addition, they pointed out that although in the data protection impact assessment “the Ministry explains that the images would be immediately deleted, the identification of a person would be achieved through the processing of biometric data of all those present in the monitored space, in order to generate patterns comparable with those of the subjects included in the watch-list.”

They added that this kind of biometric surveillance would signal a shift “from targeted surveillance of a few individuals to the possibility of universal surveillance for the purpose of identifying certain individuals.”

According to the Italian DPA, right now, the Ministry of Interior lacks a legal basis that would allow the processing of this kind of biometric data as collected and analysed by SARI Real Time, and therefore cannot use this system.

The DPA also pointed out critical aspects to be taken into account for any future attempt to regulate similar live facial recognition technologies. They stressed the importance of the “criteria for identifying the subjects who can be included in the watch-list or those for determining the cases in which the system can be used” and the “possible consequences for the interested parties in case of false positives” – including concerns towards people belonging to ethnic minorities. 

In addition, on Wednesday, April 14, facial recognition entered the Italian political debate. The deputy Filippo Sensi presented a new legislative proposal for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technologies in public spaces both by public and private actors. In the proposal, reference is made for a suspension until December 31, 2021 pending the introduction of an adequate national legislative framework to regulate the use of such technologies. Although Hermes Center considers such a short timeframe inadequate and would also like to see all sorts of biometric surveillance technologies included in the law, they welcome this legislative attempt and will continue to closely follow its developments.

Hermes Center firmly believes that:

  • In Europe, Biometric mass surveillance must be banned from our public spaces;
  • There shouldn’t be any exemptions for systems used by police authorities.

On Saturday, April 17, during the TV program “Progress” Hermes Center, who were invited together with a member of the board of the Italian DPA, the deputy Filippo Sensi, and Privacy Network, an Italian association also supporting the Reclaim Your Face campaign, obtained further assurances. Based on the opinion of the DPA on SARI Real Time, Hermes Center has been assured that the 287 municipalities that have received funding from the Ministry of Interior to install new video surveillance systems will not be able to use biometric technologies.

(Contribution by: Laura Carrer, Research and Advocacy at Digital Rights Unit, Hermes Center & Riccardo Coluccini, Reclaim Your Face national campaign contributor)