EU eyes temporary ban on facial recognition in public places | Technology | The Guardian

The EU could temporarily ban the use of facial recognition technology in public places such as train stations, sport stadiums and shopping centres over fears about creeping surveillance of European citizens.

A prohibition lasting between three and five years is seen as a way for Brussels to manage the risks said to be posed by the breakneck speed at which the software is being adopted.

The option is contained in an early draft of a European commission white paper obtained by the news website Euractiv. The final version is due to be published in February as part of a wider overhaul of the regulation of artificial intelligence.

The draft document points to the right under the general data protection regulation for EU citizens “not to be subject of a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling”.

Under the proposal, a new regulatory framework for artificial intelligence could “include a time-limited ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces”.

The paper states that the “use of facial recognition technology by private or public actors in public spaces would be prohibited for a definite period (eg three to five years) during which a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed”.

The possibility of driving forward in the field of artificial intelligence is often cited by Brexit enthusiasts as one of the major advantages for the UK as it leaves Brussels’ regulatory orbit. Critics claim Brussels is overly cautious in its treatment of new developments.

The UK will leave the EU at the end of this month but remain under its laws until at least the end of 2020. The coming negotiation over the future relationship will determine how closely the UK will align to EU rules, including on data handling and collection.

Facial recognition software is one of the fastest-growing technologies and is becoming a staple of Europe’s private and public surveillance networks.

Three UK police forces – the Met, South Wales and Leicestershire – are trialling such software as an “innovative” way to identify people suspected of committing a crime or on watchlists.

The German government is planning to roll out facial recognition technology in 134 railway stations and 14 airports after a successful trial in Berlin.

France is set to become the first EU country to allow its citizens to access secure government websites through such software. In July, the French parliament recommended a new regulatory framework to allow experimentation.

In September, the high court in London ruled that South Wales police acted lawfully and did not breach human rights or data protection laws in its use of facial recognition software.

Civil rights organisations have voiced their concern at the speed at which the technology is being adopted. The UK’s data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, has urged caution on the use of what it describes as an “intrusive” technology.

Last weekend, football supporters and civil rights activists expressed their anger after two surveillance vans equipped with the technology were seen patrolling outside Cardiff City’s stadium before a derby match with Swansea.

The campaign group Big Brother Watch organised a protest and a banner was unfurled inside the stadium during the Championship game reading “No facial recognition”.

More broadly, Brussels is looking at a range of options for dealing with the ethical and legal questions posed by artificial intelligence. Under one plan, developers would be asked to follow a voluntary ethical code. They would receive a gold-standard label in return.

The commission is also looking at minimum standards for government departments and the use of legally binding EU instruments when it comes “high–risk applications of artificial intelligence” in areas such as healthcare, transport, policing and the judiciary.

A commission spokesman declined to comment on the leaked paper. He said the commission wanted to “fully reap the benefits of artificial intelligence – to enable scientific breakthrough, to preserve the leadership of EU businesses, to improve the life of every EU citizen by enhancing diagnosis and healthcare or increasing the efficiency of farming”.

The spokesman added: “To maximise the benefits and address the challenges of artificial intelligence, Europe has to act as one and will define its own way, a human way. Technology has to serve a purpose and the people. Trust and security of EU citizens will therefore be at the centre of the EU’s strategy.

“Data is the indispensable raw ingredient of AI. We thus have to unlock, exploit and make flow data generated and owned in Europe, to create wealth for our societies and opportunities for our businesses. Our industry is world leader in most innovative sectors. Europe has everything it needs to be successful.”