EU Anti-Racism Action Plan: Why we shouldn't judge a book by its cover

As facial recognition surveillance technology enters the mainstream, the time has come for us to examine its ethical implications, argues Tineke Strik.
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By Tineke Strik

Tineke Strik (NL, Greens/EFA) is a member of Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affair Committee

19 Mar 2021

If law enforcement authorities suddenly started asking every single person on the street for proof of identity, we would find it completely disproportionate and dystopian. Yet this is already happening without our knowledge. Many Member States already use facial recognition in the public space. This raises serious questions.

We should ask ourselves whether our European values allow for a society in which people are automatically judged and classified based on their appearances. Judging people by their features inherently brings a risk of discrimination and racism. And we as members of the European Parliament should step up and challenge the use of facial recognition in the public space for a number of reasons.

“We should ask ourselves whether our European values allow for a society in which people are automatically judged and classified based on their appearances”

The concept of judging people by their features already inherently brings a risk of discrimination and racism. Using AI to judge people by their faces, however, entails a huge risk of systematically amplifying existing biases and inequalities represented in the datasets these systems are provided with. Racism, discrimination, and false positives can have far-reaching consequences in this context. The use of facial recognition in the public space, for example, entails the unforgiveable risk of misidentifying innocent citizens as criminals.

The paradox remains that the more these systems are perfected, the more dangerous they become. Deployment of facial recognition in the public space also creates an uncontrollable power imbalance between governments and citizens because citizens are tracked and identified in the public space without their knowledge.

This can have huge consequences for the rule of law, because we simply do not know when, where and why we are watched and identified by the government, which means we cannot exercise any democratic or judicial control on the use of it. And if we start accepting facial surveillance, where do we stop? Even if authorities promise to have safeguards in place and only use it for specific goals, for example to fight terrorism, they will still need to place facial surveillance cameras on every street corner. And once the cameras are already there, the lines to cross to employ it for other purposes are very thin.

We need to be critical and ask ourselves whether facial recognition in the public space is actually proportionate and necessary or whether it is a distraction from effective investigation and law enforcement. In the EU we speak constantly of ethical AI. If we at the European Parliament are serious about this, it is time we act decisively and ban facial recognition in the public space. We should not transform into a society where every person is tracked, profiled, and judged by the government based on their facial features.

These developments are unacceptable in the European Union. And a ban on facial recognition in the public space is feasible and perfectly possible. Great progress has been made outside of Europe, notably in the United States. Portland, Boston and San Francisco are among the cities that have banned the use of biometric surveillance by law enforcement authorities.

“In the EU we speak constantly of ethical AI. If we at the European Parliament are serious about this, it is time we act decisively and ban facial recognition in the public space”

Now, it is time for the EU to step up and implement a ban on the use of these intrusive technologies in public places. This is where the European Parliament comes in. When it became clear that the European Commission was considering rules on facial recognition, we saw huge resistance from Member States. Therefore, it is important that we speak up proactively, and with one voice.

Only then can we act as a counterweight to EU Member States. We need to speak up, inform citizens, raise awareness and spark an EU-wide discussion on what the use of facial recognition in the public space means for our societies, how it amplifies existing inequalities and whether it complies with our fundamental ideas of freedom, privacy, equality and democracy.

 

 

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