New German government calls for European ban on biometric mass surveillance

The newly-agreed German government coalition has called for a Europe-wide ban on public facial recognition and other biometric surveillance. This echoes the core demands of the Reclaim Your Face campaign which EDRi has co-led since 2020, through which over 65 civil society groups ask the EU and their national governments to outlaw biometric data mass surveillance.

By EDRi · December 1, 2021

On 24 November 2021, the new German government announced their highly-anticipated coalition deal, including the strongest commitments seen so far in Europe to “rule … out” “biometric recognition in public”. They further called to “reject comprehensive video surveillance and the use of biometric recording for surveillance purposes”.

The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the environmentalist Greens and the business-focused Free Democrats (FDP) jointly emphasised the vital importance of anonymity in public as well as online. Their statement echoes the demands of over 65 groups in the Reclaim Your Face campaign, co-led by EDRi.

The #ReclaimYourFace campaign

Since 2020, the Reclaim Your Face coalition has actively put pressure on decision-makers by uncovering surveillance, publishing research reports, and mobilising people for a society free from harmful technologies such as facial recognition in publicly-accessible spaces.

The campaign’s German movement led by EDRi members Chaos Computer Club (CCC), Digitale Gesellschaft and Digitalcourage has been particularly active, counting more than 16 organisations. They have organised over 14 events and been part of social media stunts, Twitter storms, as well as offline peaceful protests. Almost 30,000 German citizens have signed the campaign’s European Citizens’ Initiative, proving people-powered action can create meaningful change.

“It is a great achievement for the Reclaim Your Face campaign that our demand for a Europe without biometric surveillance was included in the German government coalition agreement. But this alone is not sufficient,” said Matthias Marx, spokesperson of the Chaos Computer Club. “Words must be backed up by actions now and bound by law.”

The German government coalition’s statement has Europe-wide significance because it demands the end of biometric mass surveillance not just of people and communities in Germany, but more broadly “under European law”.

Crucially, this new comes just one week before the Council of the European Union (the group of EU Member State ministers and ambassadors) are expected to outline their first position on the EU’s future Artificial Intelligence Act. Remote biometric identification, discriminatory biometric categorisation and emotion recognition have been hot topics in the negotiations.

“This is an important milestone for our campaign’s objectives to protect people’s rights and freedoms. In light of strong opposition to the datafication of our faces and bodies, we expect governments to reject biometric mass surveillance practices which treat every person as a potential criminal, invade our privacy on a mass scale, and amplify discrimination.” pointed Konstantin Macher of digitalcourage.

Today’s announcement adds further support to the EU actors calling for a full ban in Europe, including the European Data Protection Board and Supervisor, the European Parliament, and the governments of several EU countries.

Ending all discriminatory surveillance

Whilst we celebrate Germany’s bold and historic commitment to ending biometric mass surveillance, we urge politicians to ensure that equally strong provisions are put in place for all harmful uses of AI in the upcoming AI Act as well as in national laws.

This includes social scoring not just by governments, but also private entities, the use of AI to discriminate using ‘risk-scoring’ in welfare, policing, and migration control, as well as many other AI red lines, outlined by EDRi and 61 other civil society organisations. The EU and national governments must address all cases in which AI systems are used to target, discriminate against and harm people across Europe.

Image credit: Reclaim Your Face (CC-BY 4.0)