European Commission mulls ban on facial recognition technology

James Crisp
Germany had planned to roll out facial recognition cameras at train stations, but the EU plan may scupper this - EPA
Germany had planned to roll out facial recognition cameras at train stations, but the EU plan may scupper this - EPA

The European Commission is mulling a temporary ban of up to five years on the use of facial recognition technology in public places in the EU, such as sport stadiums or town centres. 

A draft white paper on artificial intelligence, which is subject to change, revealed the plan prepared by the EU executive. It was leaked amid growing fears over surveillance creep. 

The paper, obtained by news website EurActiv, said that Brussels could bring forward regulation including “a time–limited ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces.”

A ban would buy regulators time to catch up with a fast-moving tech sector but could impact German plans to roll out facial recognition in at 134 railway stations and 14 airports. France also wants to build a legal basis for embedding facial recognition in its video surveillance systems. 

“Facial recognition technology by private or public actors in public spaces would be prohibited for a definite period (e.g. 3–5 years) during which a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed,” the draft paper said. 

The document cites the EU’s general data protection regulation as justification for the ban. That law protects EU citizens from being “subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling.”

The final version of the document is due to be published in February by the commission, which could propose binding rules later. 

Any future legislation would be subject to amendments and approval by EU governments and the European Parliament. It is unlikely to be EU law before the end of 2020, meaning it will not be imposed in Britain after Brexit. 

The commission is also considering imposing minimum standards for government departments when it comes to”high risk applications of artificial intelligence” in policing, healthcare, transport and the judiciary. 

A European Commission spokesman refused to comment on the leaked paper. 

“Technology has to serve a purpose and the people. Trust and security will therefore be at the centre of the EU’s strategy,” he said. 

The Swedish Data Protection Authority fined a municipality £17,000 for using facial recognition technology to monitor students’ attendance at school last year. France’s data regulator has said the technology breaches EU data rules. 

The British data watchdog has urged caution over what it describes as “intrusive” technology but three UK police forces are trailing the software to identify suspects. 

Big Brother Watch warned last year that the secret use of facial recognition technology in public places in Britain was an "epidemic".