An Orwellian Premonition: a discussion on the perils of biometric surveillance

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

It has become a tradition for the EDPS and EDPB trainees to organise a data protection conference at the end of their traineeship which summarises their experience at both institutions. The trainees are free to choose their own format, topic and speakers; in doing so, it is their chance to lead their own discussions on data protection.

I have always appreciated the topics that the trainees have chosen for their conferences. This time, the trainees have not missed the mark by addressing the problems related to the European Commission’s Proposal on Artificial Intelligence, as well as focusing on the specific application of certain technologies associated with Artificial Intelligence, such as biometric surveillance. 

What follows is a summary, written by the EDPS and EDPB trainees, that highlights their main takeaway points from the conference.

We, the EDPS and EDPB trainees, were very happy when we found out at the beginning of our traineeship that we would have the opportunity to organise our own conference. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that this conference could not take place in the form of an in-person event. However, the EDPS has gained experience in hosting public events using online platforms and so we decided to follow suit. This decision was also appropriate given the highly relevant topic we chose for the conference: ‘An Orwellian Premonition: a discussion on the perils of biometric surveillance’.

The conference was opened by the European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiorowski. He presented the EDPS, providing an overview of its activities, and set the tone for the discussions to come. After this introduction, Vitor Bernardo, from the EDPS’ Technology and Privacy Unit, gave a short and very informative presentation on the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down harmonised roles on Artificial Intelligence (‘the AI Regulation’) as well as the EDPS-EDPB Joint Opinion 05/2021 on the AI Regulation.

Following these interesting presentations, we opened the floor to the panel of experts that we invited. It was a great pleasure to welcome the following speakers as our panellists:

  • Ella Jakubowska, policy adviser at European Digital Rights;
  • Michael Veale, lecturer at the Faculty of Law of the University College London;
  • Alan Dahi, data protection lawyer at NOYB (My Privacy is None of Your Business);
  • Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna, director for global privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum;
  • Vitor Bernardo, member of the Technology and Privacy Unit at the EDPS.

During the panel discussion, thought-provoking ideas were introduced on the technical, legal and ethical elements of biometric surveillance. Concerns about the different ways biometric data could possibly be abused if biometric surveillance is legalised were highlighted.

Panellists also widened the scope of the conference by including an international perspective to this issue. For instance, we learned that it is not only the EU that takes a critical stance towards the processing of biometric data. The US, which is commonly known for being a country that embraces new technologies, also has a number of cities that have banned the use of facial recognition.

Legalising biometric surveillance may increase incidents, already occurring, when biometric data is used in an abusive way. As such, there was a consensus among our guest speakers that the risks of using biometric surveillance outweigh the benefits. In order to respect individuals’ fundamental rights, it is a better starting point to prohibit biometric surveillance, with possible and justified exceptions allowed later on. Otherwise, it will increasingly remain individuals’ burden to track the way their data is being used, and to file complaints in the event that their data is misused.

The struggle of these ongoing developments was neatly summarised in one question, pointed out by our guest speaker Alan Dahi: “Why must the data subjects bare this responsibility when it is, in effect, the duty of the state to protect their rights?”

To conclude these fruitful discussions, we had the honour of hosting Gwendal Le Grand, Deputy Secretary-General of the “Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés”, the French national Data Protection Authority, who shared his analysis on the way the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has raised the bar when it comes to biometric surveillance.

Looking back, we are grateful for the high quality of the debate and the extent to which the discussions have deepened our understanding of biometric surveillance. Data protection and privacy rights are inherent parts of individuals’ fundamental rights. To this end, it is essential to inform ourselves and other people about regulations that affect them. This way, we can shape the future of how our data is used.

Watch the EDPS - EDPB Conference: 'An Orwellian Premonition: a discussion on the perils of biometric surveillance' on the EDPS website.

The EDPS and EDPB trainees of March 2021
Taline Akkaya, Celie Allagnat, Elena Damyanova, Maria-Alexandra Enescu, Isabel Hahn, Roxana Matei, Henri Palm and Panagiota Salasidou.