Facial Recognition Technology Brings Negative Impacts on Civil Liberties and Human Rights

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Original article (in Croatian) was published on 6/5/2024; Author: Melita Vrsaljko

China leads in surveillance, but the practice is also expanding in neighboring regions. In Serbia, over a thousand cameras have been installed across 600 locations.

Citizens worldwide are increasingly being monitored, and dystopian scenes of surveillance cameras connected to software for facial recognition and biometric data processing are becoming a reality in many countries. More and more activists for digital rights are warning that the application of this technology could have negative consequences for civil liberties and human rights in general.

Some of them, from the SHARE Foundation from Serbia, recently presented in Zagreb a comprehensive report titled “Beyond the Face-Biometrics and Society”. Duje Prkut and Duje Kozamara from Politscope, a Zagreb watchdog organization with a focus on the protection of citizens’ privacy, also took part in creating the report. The paper provides examples of the application of facial recognition technology around the world and an overview of the legal regulations of the practice.

Numerous non-governmental organizations state that the Artificial Intelligence Act, adopted by the European Parliament two months ago, leaves room for concern about using biometric surveillance technology in public places for certain purposes.

Mass surveillance, not even for specific purposes but through indiscriminate enforcement, is slowly knocking on the door of the neighborhood, in Serbia. Regarding this matter, we spoke with Danilo Krivokapic from the SHARE Foundation, the largest regional organization for the protection of digital rights.

Serbia Under Surveillance

The first biometric camera in Belgrade was noticed in June 2019. Currently, over a thousand cameras are installed in 600 locations, says Krivokapic, according to the information they have from the police.

“The cameras do the  ‘traditional’ video surveillance. The cameras are recording, these recordings are stored somewhere, but no facial recognition software has been acquired. The latest information we received from the Ministry of the Interior is that we are waiting for the issue of this technology to be regulated in a legal way”, says Krivokapic.

The installation of cameras is part of the “Safe City” project and a longer story that began back in 2011 when the Government of Serbia and Huawei started discussions on the implementation of the “Safe Society” project, which included the introduction of a mass surveillance system. Ten years ago, a joint memorandum was signed and the installation of 1,000 cameras at 800 locations as part of the “Safe City” project was announced on Huawei’s website.

In September 2021, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Serbia published the Draft Law on Internal Affairs, which contained provisions for the use of mass biometric surveillance technology in public spaces. By adopting this law, Serbia would become the first European country to legalize and implement indiscriminate surveillance of its residents in public spaces. The draft was withdrawn from the public discussion, which also happened with the second proposal that was released for public discussion.

We asked Krivokapic if they expected the government to come out with a third draft of the law. He said that a government is currently being formed in Serbia and that they will soon have a new minister of the interior. He has no doubts that the law will be quickly adopted in the procedure because it is a large and complex law with more than 300 articles, which is important to pass because it regulates the work of the police.

It was not adopted twice precisely because of the provisions on biometric surveillance.

“We have to take into account that the Law on Artificial Intelligence was passed in the EU, which somehow allowed the use of biometric surveillance in public spaces. It seems to me that this is a trend that our police will not miss, even though we are not in the EU. As an organization, we advocated a complete ban on biometric surveillance in public space, and this Act again, in addition to the basic ban, allows for certain exceptions, such as investigations for certain criminal acts, searches for missing persons, threats to security”, says Krivokapic.

The installation of cameras is not only planned in Belgrade; an investigation by Radio Free Europe’s Balkan service showed that 42 cities and municipalities ordered video surveillance equipment through Macchina Security, a company that has won tenders in recent years and imports Chinese surveillance technology to Serbia. An investigation by Radio Free Europe showed that at least 10 municipalities bought cameras with facial recognition capabilities.

“The trend is to acquire equipment for mass video surveillance, even in some specifications it is stated that these cameras must have facial recognition capabilities. Although the use of such software is still legally prohibited, we can say that it is the beginning of setting up an infrastructure for mass surveillance. Buy and install the cameras, and the next day just replace the software and you can control public spaces, both in Belgrade and in other cities”, says Krivokapic.

We asked him how interested the public is in this issue. Through a petition, the SHARE Foundation collected 14,000 signatures to ban biometric surveillance, and numerous citizens donated money through the association’s crowdfunding campaign to fight against the introduction of mass surveillance.

“The fact that we succeeded in overturning the law twice shows how much the public cares. The issue of digital technologies is not a ‘hot topic’ in the sense that votes are won or lost around this issue. In this particular case, it became such a big topic because fear and apprehension among citizens had the greatest influence on the withdrawal of the law twice. This is not a practice in Serbia, it rarely happens that certain legal regulations are withdrawn from the procedure under pressure from the public”, says Krivokapic.

China: A Leader in Surveillance Technology

The most striking example of Orwellian-scale surveillance is found in China.

Around 200 million cameras were installed across the country in 2018, and their number is constantly increasing. Some of the cameras are connected to the so-called “social credit system”, a concept that the Chinese government started to develop in 2014.

Besides the fact that China is among the leaders in the use of this technology, Chinese companies are increasingly contracting for such jobs in less developed countries. Huawei has the most success in this regard, but also in the development of the technology itself.

As stated in the SHARE Foundation’s report, Huawei has developed the concept of “Safe City”, which consists of a combination of urban public security infrastructure and software with advanced capabilities.

Researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that Huawei’s “Safe City” covers a wide range of products and services, such as command centers, CCTV cameras, intelligent video surveillance, facial recognition, license plate recognition and crowd tracking. According to CSIS findings, the technology is being deployed mainly in middle-income and illiberal markets and countries in Asia and Africa.

In addition to Serbia, the list of countries using Huawei’s system includes Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Angola, Laos, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Uganda, as well as Germany, France and Italy. The Chinese company’s facial recognition technology is used in nearly 230 cities, according to CBS News.

In countries with fragile democracies, such systems are often misused, harming activists. For instance, the report highlights Myanmar, where, following the military coup in February 2021, the new government utilized CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition technology to suppress peaceful democratic protests. This technology enabled authorities to track, identify, and subsequently arrest, detain, and execute protesters, exacerbating the crackdown on dissent.

“Such systems serve to control society. They don’t even have to be fully functional for some kind of impact on society to occur. We had a situation where people massively reported that biometric surveillance was used during the protests in Belgrade. Although the Data Protection Commissioner found that it was not being used, it was clearly enough for people to think that it was already being used for them to have a certain kind of fear about the possibility of being recorded and that there would be consequences for that. That is why this type of technology and organization of public spaces is very suitable for autocratic regimes”, says Krivokapic.

We asked him how much the application of this technology affects safety on the streets. He tells us how it helps to reduce a lighter form of crime, such as petty street theft.

“However, it seems to me that there is no proportionality in the fact that, for the sake of possibly preventing some petty theft, you introduce such mass surveillance that essentially changes how people experience their personal freedom and public space as such. What has definitely not proven to be effective, not only when it comes to biometric surveillance, but any other mass surveillance, is that it does not help in suppressing terrorism and organized crime. Higher forms of crime can easily overcome this type of surveillance, and they are often cited as the reason for its introduction”, he says.

Market Development

It is estimated that facial recognition technology is used in more than 100 countries around the world. According to Deloitte, the global facial recognition technology market is expected to be worth around US$8.5 billion by 2025, a significant increase from US$3.8 billion in 2020.

Once approved and tested, these surveillance systems are very difficult to remove, according to the SHARE Foundation report. An example of this is the use of facial recognition technology in Moscow, which went through an alleged experimental phase during the 2018 FIFA World Cup and is still in use. A similar scenario can be expected in France, where in March last year the National Assembly passed a law allowing the use of AI technology for surveillance to increase public safety during the Olympic Games to be held in Paris this year.

Because of the potential dangers to democratic freedoms, some companies have restricted the development of these technologies. For example, IBM, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, claimed that it had stopped selling facial recognition technology, and a similar promise, the one related to emotion recognition technology, was made by Microsoft (although these promises have not been verified). As the report emphasizes, the very fact that these companies have decided to impose a moratorium on their own products and services hints at how dangerous these systems are.

“We cannot trust that big companies, whose main goal is profit, will be the ones who will protect our rights. They will adapt to what our countries decide in terms of controlling public space. If certain companies will not deal with this technology, others will. However, it is up to the countries to make decisions whether such systems will be used or not”, explained Krivokapic.

Despite advancements in technology that have increased the precision of biometric data analysis, errors still occur, occasionally leading to the wrongful arrest and accusation of innocent individuals by the police. In addition, according to the web portal The Conversation, some people are monitored more closely than others – as evidenced by caste cameras in India, face tracking of Uyghurs in China and even monitoring of attendance in American schools, often in low-income and predominantly African-American schools.

Regulation in Croatia

As Faktograf previously reported, the Ministry of the Interior (MUP) of the Republic of Croatia announced in October 2019 that it was procuring a facial recognition system worth HRK 2.8 million excluding VAT. The procurement process is classified as secret, so the MUP responded that they could not provide more information about the software they purchased.

Not long after the announcement of the tender, in December 2019, the Biometric Data Processing Act was adopted, which ensures the conditions for data processing in information systems within the Republic of Croatia, as well as in related information systems of the European Union. Half a year later, the Ministry of Internal Affairs also issued a regulation that prescribes in more detail the method of processing biometric data and the authority to use the system.

The reason for this, as stated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the proposal for the Law on Biometric Data Processing, is that in the last few years, “the European Union and the Republic of Croatia have been experiencing an increasing number of illegal border crossings and a growing and permanent threat to the internal security of the European Union, which is also shown by a series of terrorist attacks”. For this reason, the Ministry of Interior claims that citizens of the European Union and the Republic of Croatia expect checks on individuals at external borders and within the Schengen area to be effective.

When it comes to the general use of this technology, the Act on the Implementation of the General Regulation on the Protection of Personal Data, adopted by the Parliament in May 2018, determines who and in what way may process biometric data.

In public government bodies, processing is permitted only when mandated by law and necessary to protect individuals, property, classified information, or business secrets. It is legally compliant and specifically applicable for identifying individuals at state borders.

In the private sector, it can be used for the protection of individuals, property, and data, or for securely identifying service users. However, the legal basis for processing is the explicit consent of the individuals whose data are being collected.