MEPs back ban on AI-driven mass and indiscriminate surveillance

European Parliament calls for a ban on police and judicial authorities using facial recognition technology in the EU, at least in the form of mass surveillance in public spaces
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By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a Brussels-based journalist and copy editor

06 Oct 2021

With a majority of 71 votes, and 62 abstentions, the European Parliament, on Wednesday, adopted a resolution on “artificial intelligence in criminal law and its use by the police and judicial authorities in criminal matters”.

The report calls for a ban on police and judicial authorities using facial recognition technology in the EU, at least in the form of mass surveillance in public spaces.

Behind the numbers lies a dispute between the biggest political group in Parliament, the EPP, who voted against the report with just seven exceptions, and the other major groups, notably the S&D, Renew Europe and the Greens/EFA who voted for it without exception.

Despite agreeing in principle that AI is a useful tool for law enforcement but must not be allowed to encroach on fundamental rights, the two sides could not agree on what exactly this meant in practice.

The report’s author, Petar Vitanov (S&D, BG), had argued in his presentation in plenary on Monday evening that AI has not yet proven to be a reliable tool on its own.

Referencing data received by “multiple NGOs”, he cited cases such as being denied social benefit because of faulty AI tools, or people being arrested following wrongful facial recognition, adding that the “victims are always the poor, immigrants, people of colour or Eastern Europeans. I always thought that only happens in the movies.”

“Predictive profiling, AI risk assessment and automated decision making systems are weapons of 'Math Destruction'... as dangerous to our democracy as nuclear bombs are for living creatures and life... they will destroy the fundamental rights of each citizen to be equal before the law and in the eye of our authorities” Danish liberal MEP Karen Melchior

Renew and Greens/EFA members were equally clear where AI should not go or cannot reach.

Danish liberal deputy Karen Melchior said during the debate that “predictive profiling, AI risk assessment and automated decision making systems are weapons of 'Math Destruction'”, as they were “as dangerous to our democracy as nuclear bombs are for living creatures and life”. She concluded that “they will destroy the fundamental rights of each citizen to be equal before the law and in the eye of our authorities.”

Dutch Green MEP Kim van Sparrentak addressed her “colleagues from the EPP: let’s be realistic. AI is not a quick solution to fight crime or terrorism. An AI camera will not detect radicalisation. Automating police work is not a substitute for police funding and community workers.”

In press statements after the result of the vote was announced, German Pirate MEP Patrick Breyer proclaimed that “we have achieved the breakthrough in the fight against the discriminatory use of mass surveillance instruments by police authorities”.

Whereas rapporteur Vitanov stated: “Technical progress should never come at the expense of people’s fundamental rights, and today the Parliament has sent a clear signal that fundamental rights are unconditional - no ifs, no maybes.”

The adopted report and resolution  calls for the ban of private facial recognition databases like the Clearview AI system, and of predictive policing based on behavioural data.

“Technical progress should never come at the expense of people’s fundamental rights, and today the Parliament has sent a clear signal that fundamental rights are unconditional - no ifs, no maybes” Rapporteur, Bulgarian Socialist MEP, Petar Vitanov 

And it calls for the use of biometric data to remotely identify people, as is the case in the iBorderCtrl project - a ‘smart lie-detection system’ - for traveller entry to the EU - to be discontinued.

EPP members had been less passionate in the debate, with, for Belgian deputy Tom Vandenkendelaere commenting: “We must remain vigilant but we must not throw out the baby with bathwater”, or the Netherland’s Jeroen Lenaers who stressed the need “to look at opportunities with an open mind”.

The EPP did not issue a press statement on the issue, perhaps because Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johanssen, who is heading the EU executive’s efforts on draft legislation on AI in Europe, and who participated in Monday’s debate, signalled that her position was more in line with the EPP’s cautious approach to bans.

Pointing to recent successes by law enforcement agencies in Europe, thanks to AI technology, like the swift capture of the suspected killers of Dutch investigative journalist Peter R De Vries in July - an example of “smart, digital technology used in defence of citizens and our fundamental rights” - Johanssen pleaded: “Don’t put protection of fundamental rights in contradiction to the protection of human lives and of societies. It’s simply not true that we have to choose. We are capable of doing both.”

The Commission published its proposal for a European Artificial Intelligence Act in April.

The Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) is responsible for Parliament’s legislative report which is currently being drafted by Italian Socialist MEP Brando Benifei.

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