The new regulation would limit 'the indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology' by companies and public authorities, said an official

Brussels is exploring ways to impose strict limits on the use of facial recognition technology in an attempt to stamp out creeping public surveillance of European citizens.

The European Commission is planning regulation that will give EU citizens explicit rights over the use of their facial recognition data as part of an overhaul in the way Europe regulates artificial intelligence, according to senior officials who spoke to the Financial Times. 

The aim would be to limit “the indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology’’ by companies and public authorities, said an official. Under the plan, European citizens would be given the powers to “know when [facial recognition] data is used”, with any exceptions “tightly circumscribed” to ensure appropriate use, said the source. 

Brussels’ initiative comes amid revelations about the use of facial recognition for monitoring crowds in areas such as London’s King’s Cross, which last week prompted an investigation from the UK’s data protection watchdog. 

The move to explicitly legislate facial recognition technology would bolster citizens’ protection above existing restrictions laid out under the EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR). The collection of sensitive “biometric” data that can be used to uniquely identify people is already prohibited under the GDPR unless citizens give their explicit consent.

The growing use of surveillance technology in public spaces has put facial recognition under regulatory spotlight. Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s information commissioner, has said she is “deeply concerned about the rollout” of facial recognition technology use among police and security forces in the UK. On Wednesday, Sweden’s national data protection authority imposed the first fine under GDPR for misuse of facial recognition on a school that trialled the technology to monitor the daily attendance of students. The school was fined SKr200,000 (€18,670) for breaching students’ privacy rights using camera surveillance.

Any new EU law that targets the “indiscriminate” use of the technology would affect how private companies and police and security authorities are allowed to use facial recognition in surveillance in public areas.

Brussels’ plans to legislate facial recognition technology are part of an EU drive to create ethically based laws governing AI. Although the blueprint is at an early stage, the aim would be to help “foster public trust and acceptance” in facial recognition, added the official.

According to a document seen by the FT, the EU wants to draw up legislation that “should set a world-standard for AI regulation” and sets “clear, predictable and uniform rules . . . which adequately protect individuals”. It would help build on existing obligations under the GDPR and target specific technologies such as facial recognition “which bring specific risks”. 

“AI applications can pose significant risks to fundamental rights. Unregulated AI systems may take decisions affecting citizens without explanation, possibility of recourse or even a responsible interlocutor,” said the document. 

Ursula von der Leyen, incoming president of the commission, has said she will unveil legislation within her first 100 days in office that will provide a “co-ordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of artificial intelligence”. 

In June, an EU expert group working for the commission said new rules had to make clear when technologies were tracking targeted individuals or carrying out mass surveillance. 

“Practical means must be developed which allow meaningful and verified consent to be given to being automatically identified by AI or equivalent technologies,” said the expert group. 

A commission spokesperson did not comment on the legislative plans but said the EU would “decide on any future steps” building on the recommendations from the expert group. 

Letter in response to this article:

Ensuring safe use of facial recognition technology / From Gus Tomlinson, London, UK

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