New AI law proposal calls out harms of biometric mass surveillance, but does not resolve them

On 21 April 2021, the European Commission put forward a proposal for a new law on artificial intelligence. With it, the Commission acknowledged some of the numerous threats biometric mass surveillance poses for our freedoms and dignity. However, despite its seemingly good intentions, the proposed law falls seriously short on our demands and does not in fact impose a ban on most cases of biometric mass surveillance – as urged by EDRi and the Reclaim Your Face coalition.

On 21 April 2021, the European Commission put forward a proposal for a new law on artificial intelligence. With it, the Commission acknowledged some of the numerous threats biometric mass surveillance poses for our freedoms and dignity. However, despite its seemingly good intentions, the proposed law falls seriously short on our demands and does not in fact impose a ban on most cases of biometric mass surveillance – as urged by EDRi and the Reclaim Your Face coalition.

Containing vague wording and poorly-defined concepts, the European Commission (EC) failed to address in its new law proposal the full extent of harmful biometric mass surveillance practices documented across the EU.

In particular, the proposed AI law only prohibits a sub-section of what could be considered biometric mass surveillance practices for law enforcement purposes, and does not ban the practice for government authorities or private companies whatsoever.

Furthermore, the European Commission offers law enforcement agencies a substantial list of problematic exceptions for which they may be allowed to use biometric mass surveillance tools – although only if governments decide to allow those exceptions in their national law.

Finally, the proposed law’s ban on biometric mass surveillance for law enforcement purposes only refers to “real-time” identification, leaving room for “post”/after the event identification examples – such as the ones provided by notorious biometric mass surveillance company, ClearviewAI.

In reaction to a leak of the draft law, last week 62 members of the European Parliament called on the European Commission to include a ban on all biometric mass surveillance practices, as defined by EDRi and the Reclaim Your Face coalition. Separately, EDRi too has urged the EC with a separate letter, to take a fundamental rights–based approach to the AI regulation, putting people before profit.

The proposed AI law takes a small but significant step in the right direction in regards to banning biometric mass surveillance. However, the law is yet to be shaped by the other democratic EU institutions, meaning that it will go through many rounds of changes before it is passed.

A strong, united voice of civil society and people living in Europe can now decide the fate of this law – and with it – the fate of human dignity in Europe. The gaps in this proposal have shown why it is so important that we call to ban all biometric mass surveillance practices.

Andreea Belu

Campaigns and Communications Manager

Twitter: @EveDaRib

Ella Jakubowska

Policy and Campaigns Officer

Twitter: @ellajakubowska1