New EDRi report reveals depths of biometric mass surveillance in Germany, the Netherlands and Poland

In a new research report, EDRi reveals the shocking extent of unlawful biometric mass surveillance practices in Germany, the Netherlands and Poland which are taking over our public spaces like train stations, streets, and shops. The EU and its Member States must act now to set clear legal limits to these practices which create a state of permanent monitoring, profiling and tracking of people.

The EDRi network’s new independent report by the Edinburgh International Justice Initiative (EIJI), “The Rise and Rise of Biometric Mass Surveillance in the EU”, reveals stark and compelling evidence of abusive facial recognition and other forms of biometric mass surveillance across the European Union (EU). This research shows that harmful biometric mass surveillance practices have become worryingly normalised by law enforcement, other public authorities and private companies in Germany and the Netherlands – with Poland starting to catch up. 

This new evidence comes hot on the heels of the EU’s two top privacy watchdogs, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and European Data Protection Board (EDPB)confirming that the EU must ban all automated recognition of human features in publicly accessible spaces. This supports the call from EDRi to permanently ban the indiscriminate or arbitrarily-targeted surveillance of people through their biometric features, in publicly-accessible spaces. 

As European governments start to debate the proposed new EU Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act), this report is a clear message that civil society are watching them. We will not let them get away with practices that are intrinsically intrusive of people’s privacy and dignity, can lead to discrimination, and enable the violation of many other human rights.

Read the report summary in: German, Dutch, Polish

Trends across the report

The report shows that in all three countries, biometric systems are increasingly being required for accessing public services, travel, shopping and other everyday activities. As a result, people are being given the false ‘choice’ to either submit their sensitive data, or be excluded from society. 

In all three countries, governments and corporations are deploying biometric mass surveillance systems for purported goals such as fighting crime or convenience, in ways that are incompatible with EU data protection law. Innocent people are being treated as suspects through the inclusion of their sensitive data in vast biometric databases.

Examples from the Netherlands

The report exposes how Dutch police have allegedly used financial incentives and ‘dark patterns’ to encourage people to share private surveillance footage with police for biometric analysis, as a way to evade current national laws. Additionally, the evidence shows how public-private partnerships have turned whole cities into experimental ‘Living Labs’ which track people’s biometric and other data. They have done this purportedly to predict people’s levels of aggression or their life outcomes – despite recent court cases exposing the Dutch government’s seriously discriminatory use of AI in the delivery of welfare and services.

Examples from Germany

In Germany, authorities in the city of Cologne have deployed facial recognition systems outside of LGBTQ+ venues, religious venues, doctor’s surgeries and lawyers’ offices without any legitimate justification. The disproportionate deployment of such technologies against certain marginalised groups amplifies structural oppression in society and limits people’s rights to express freely, move without fear and be who they are.

Ella Jakubowska, Policy Advisor at EDRi, warns that:

Whilst EU laws say that each of us is innocent until proven guilty, the prevalence of biometric mass surveillance practices across Europe flips this on its head. Each of us is treated as suspicious until ‘proven’ innocent, by often discriminatory and persecutory deployments of systems that never should have been rolled out in the first place.

Examples from Poland

In Poland, the police have misused the country’s facial recognition-based COVID-19 quarantine system to visit the homes of people after they have finished their quarantine. The Polish government have also been accused of using spyware with the capability to surveil people’s biometric datadespite such spyware having been implicated in crimes against human rights defenders.

The urgent need to ban biometric mass surveillance

This research is additional evidence of the need for the EU to outlaw these practices and enforce fundamental rights and the rule of law. From the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to conduct biometric mass surveillance, to harmful social scoring and predictive policing, EDRi is advocating for red lines (legal limits) on all uses of AI that are unacceptable in a democratic society. Along with increased scrutiny of those developing and deploying AI, as well as more meaningful engagement with those that are subject to AI tools, such measures are needed to ensure that the EU’s approach to AI truly puts people first.

At the moment, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU are gearing up to negotiate the Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act), a new law that gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ban biometric mass surveillance and other AI practices that have no place in a democratic society. The AI Act will affect everyone in the EU and beyond, so it is vital that the EU puts forward strong rules that will put individuals and societies ahead of state control and corporate greed.

EU citizens can make their opposition to being constantly spied on and tracked via sensitive data about their bodies and behaviours clear by signing our official initiative, already supported by 56 000 individuals and over 60 civil society organisations, at https://reclaimyourface.eu#sign 

The article was published on the 7th of July 2021.

(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