No place for emotion recognition technologies in Italian museums

An Italian museum trials emotion recognition systems, despite the practice being heavily criticised by data protection authorities, scholars and civil society. The ShareArt system collects, among others, age, gender and emotions of people. EDRi member Hermes Center called the DPA for an investigation.

By Hermes Center (guest author) · July 14, 2021

On 23 June 2021, EDRi’s member the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights asked the Italian Data Protection Authority to open an investigation into the ShareArt system, developed by ENEA (the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development) in collaboration with the Istituzione Bologna Musei.

The system aims to measure “the enjoyment of a work of art” by visitors in the museum, as reported by several newspapers, by the ENEA press release and as described in a technical document found online by the Hermes Center.

ShareArt is powered by a convolutional neural network and when visitors enter the field of view of the camera they are “assigned a numeric ID and tracked, regardless of whether they are or not observing in the direction of the work.”

Additional information on visitors’ behaviour is collected: for example, according to the technical document, “the path taken to approach the work, the number of people who observed it, the time and distance of observation, the gender, the age group, and the mood of the visitors.”

This system has reportedly been tested and is being expanded to add additional cameras. 

The Hermes Center believes that this type of application constitutes unlawful real-time processing of biometric data. The system perpetuates the pseudo-scientific idea that people’s emotional state can be inferred from their facial expressions and, in addition, risks discriminating against transgender and non-binary people—something that studies have repeatedly shown.

According to ENEA, “the technology employed is compatible with the GDPR regulation on privacy because it does not acquire or store data that can be associated with a natural person or that indicate their geographical location.”

However, from the technical document, it is clear that major problems with respect to the principles of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) arise: visitors cannot avoid being recorded, there is a lack of transparency regarding the system, and the system can generate a chilling effect.

The ShareArt system captures the image of the face, processes the image to extract biometric data, and then further analyses the captured biometric data to extract information about gender, age and emotional state.

As detailed in an article by The Telegraph, it seems there are very few signs to indicate that the system is active, beyond “small black cameras attached to the walls and a disclaimer in the ticket office.” This seems to be confirmed by photos published online by ENEA.

The ShareArt system is capable of collecting information “on how the mood of the audience varies according to the work observed or on how a work elicits different emotions on observers of different ages.” This, according to ENEA’s technical paper, “would allow further refinement of profiling and would satisfy another request made by museum curators.”

Among the categories that ShareArt wants to profile there are children and old people. These individuals should enjoy enhanced protection given that they might not always be able to understand that they are being monitored by a camera and that their biometric data is being processed. In addition, works of art can also have political, religious, sexual or philosophical subjects, and recording the reaction of visitors would entail profiling based on special categories of personal data.

Emotion recognition technologies (ERT) are increasingly being criticised by civil society and even by European authorities. Recently, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) have pointed out in their joint opinion on the European Commission’s Proposal for an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Regulation that the “use of AI to infer emotions of a natural person is highly undesirable and should be prohibited.”

ERT are based on two fundamentally flawed assumptions: a person’s inner emotions can be inferred from their facial expressions, and such emotions are discrete and uniformly expressed throughout the world. ERT lacks a solid scientific basis and risks consolidating arbitrary assumptions about people.

Furthermore, viewing a work of art is clearly an intimate and personal experience: a painting can bring up memories and feelings related to a person’s past and personal life. Knowing that we are being monitored by an algorithm while we are in front of a painting could completely distort the freedom of expression and prevent the free development of someone’s personality: people might avoid exhibitions or change the way they experience works of art.

The ShareArt system represents a biometric surveillance system that indiscriminately monitors any visitors, from minors to elderly people, and creeps into one of the most intimate experiences of people’s lives. This system should not be allowed in the European Union (EU).

Together with EDRi and more than 60 organisations we are calling for a ban of biometric mass surveillance in public spaces across the EU with the European Citizen Initiative Reclaim Your Face. Sign now:

The article was published on 14 July 2021.

(Contribution by: Riccardo Coluccini, Reclaim Your Face national campaign contributor)