Keeping Artificial Intelligence Human: New EU Regulations Seek to Ban Mass and Indiscriminate Surveillance

Written by | Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021

In April, the European Commission unveiled its long-awaited plan to regulate Artificial Intelligence (AI), the first endeavour of its kind and one reason why expectations were high, both in Europe and abroad. Regulating the use of such rapidly evolving technologies is not an easy task, which has, among other steps, required years of work, study and consultations with a wide range of stakeholders. These new European Union regulations on AI are meant to ban mass and indiscriminate surveillance. While that is the good news for most people, the ‘not so good’ news is that the proposed prohibitions are considered by some as being too vague, with serious loopholes. So are landmark new EU rules on artificial intelligence sufficient to allay fears of a ‘Big Brother’ takeover of our lives?
The EU is looking to set the terms with this, its first ever legislative package on AI and to catch up with the US and China in a sector that spans areas from voice recognition to insurance and law enforcement. The European Parliament has played its part, as was also useful to take into account public opinion on the issue. A survey conducted by YouGov in ten EU countries in March showed that a majority oppose biometric mass surveillance. Some 55% of respondents voiced opposition to the use of facial recognition in public spaces. Moreover, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) recently called for a ban on the use of AI for the automated recognition of human features in “publicly accessible spaces” as well as other uses that might lead to “unfair discrimination”. Broadly speaking, this reflects the response to the EU’s attempt to set a standard on how tech is regulated around the world.
Reaction to the Commission’s plans has been mixed, as might have been expected. The issue that has attracted most attention is the one on real-time remote biometric identification systems in public spaces for law enforcement purposes. Both the EDPB and the EDPS, for example, have reservations the deployment of remote biometric identification in publicly accessible spaces that would mean, as EDPD chair Andrea Jelinek argues, “the end of anonymity” in those places. Applications such as live facial recognition interfere with fundamental rights and freedoms to such an extent that they may call into question their very essence, Jelinek points out. Lawmakers in the European Parliament also have mixed feelings on the proposals, if only, as MEP Brando Benifei stressed, because “we cannot afford to make mistakes, in an era where authoritarian regimes are setting their own, illiberal standards.”

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