Prüm II: Biometric surveillance in Europe via facial recognition
Lawmakers are advancing proposals to allow European Union police forces to link their photo databases, which contain millions of face photos, according to a report by Wired.
For 15 years, police forces searching for criminals in Europe can exchange their fingerprints, DNA data and vehicle owner information. If French officials suspect that a person they are looking for is in Spain, they can ask the Spanish authorities to check the fingerprints in their database. Now, European lawmakers are set to include millions of face photos in this system – and enable the use of facial recognition on an unprecedented scale.
The expansion of facial recognition in Europe is part of wider shots aimed at “modernizing” policing on the continent, and is part of the data sharing proposals Prum II. Details were first announced in December, but criticism from European data regulators has grown louder in recent weeks as the full impact of the plans is understood.
“What you are creating is the most extensive biometric surveillance infrastructure we will ever see in the world,” says Ella Jakubowska, policy adviser at the civil rights NGO European Digital Rights (EDRi). Documents obtained by EDRi under freedom of information legislation reveal how nations lobbied for facial recognition to be included in the international law enforcement agreement.
The first version of Prüm was signed by seven European countries – Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Austria – in 2005 and allows nations to share data to fight international crime. Since the introduction of Prüm, its adoption by the 27 European countries was mixed.
Prüm II plans to greatly expand the amount of information that can be shared, potentially including photos and information from driver’s licenses. The European Commission proposals also provide that the police will have wider “automated” access to the information shared. According to lawmakers, this means that police authorities across Europe will be able to cooperate closely and that the European law enforcement agency, Europolwill have a “greater role”.
The inclusion of facial images and the possibility of comparing them to facial recognition algorithms are among the main changes planned in Prüm II. In recent years, facial recognition technology has come under increasing scrutiny. strong opposition due to the increasing adoption of this technology by police forces, which has made it possible to identify people wrongly and change lives. Dozens of American cities have gone as far as to forbid police forces to use this technology. The European Union debate currently a ban on police use of facial recognition in public places under its law on artificial intelligence.
However, Prüm II allows the use of retrospective facial recognition. This means that police forces can compare still images from CCTV cameras, photos from social media or photos from a victim’s phone with mug shots kept in a police database. This technology is different from live facial recognition systems, which are often connected to cameras in public spaces; it is the latter who have been the most criticized.
The European proposals allow a nation to compare a photo against other countries’ databases and find out if there are any matches – creating one of the largest facial recognition systems in existence. According to a document obtained by EDRi, the number of potential matches could be anywhere between 10 and 100 faces, though those numbers need to be finalized by policy makers. A European Commission spokesperson says a human will review potential matches and decide if one is correct, before any further action is taken. “In a significant number of cases, a suspect’s facial image is available,” France’s interior minister said in the documents. He claims to have solved burglary and child sexual abuse cases using his facial recognition system, Wired reports.
Prüm II documents, dated April 2021, when the plans were first discussed, show the huge number of photos of faces that countries hold. Hungary has 30 million photos, Italy 17 million, France 6 million and Germany 5.5 million, the documents show. These images may include suspects, people convicted of crimes, asylum seekers and “unidentified dead people”, and they come from multiple sources in each country.
According to Jakubowska, while criticism of facial recognition systems has mostly focused on real-time systems, those that identify people at a later date remain problematic. “When you apply facial recognition to footage or images retrospectively, the harms can sometimes be even greater, due to the ability to look back to, say, a protest from three years ago, or to see who I met five years ago, because I am now a political opponent,” she said. “Only the facial images of suspects or convicted criminals can be exchanged”, specifies the spokesperson of the European Commission, citing a guide on the system operation. “There will be no correspondence between the facial images and those of the general population”.
Photos of people’s faces should not be consolidated into a giant central database, according to the official proposal, but the police forces will be linked together by a “central router”. This router will not store any data, the European Commission spokesperson said, adding that it “will only act as a message broker” between nations. This decentralized approach makes Prüm II simpler: In the current system, police officers who wish to compare fingerprints must individually log in to other police departments. With the new infrastructure, countries only need one connection to the central router and it will be easier “to add additional data categories to the system”, according to documents obtained by EDRi.
The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), who oversees how EU bodies use data under the GDPR, has criticized Prüm’s planned expansion, which could take several years. “Automated search of facial images is not limited only to serious crimes, but could be carried out for the prevention, detection and investigation of any criminal offense, even minor,” said Wojciech Wiewiórowski, early March. Wiewiórowski said more safeguards should be written into the proposals to ensure people’s privacy rights are protected. The European Commission spokesman said the body took “good note” of the EDPS’ opinion and that the thoughts will be taken into account when the European Parliament and Council discuss the legislation.
During the development of the plans, Slovenia was one of the main countries to press for the expansion, in particular by asking that the driving license data people are included. Domen Savič, CEO of Slovenian digital rights group Državljan D, says there are big concerns about the differences between police databases and who is included. “I haven’t heard enough to be convinced that all this data collected by different police forces is treated in the same way,” says Savič.
Police databases are often poorly compiled. In July 2021, the Dutch police have deleted 218,000 photos that she had wrongly included in her facial recognition database. In the UK, more than a thousand young black men have been removed from a ” gang database in February 2021. “You might have databases that have completely different backgrounds in terms of how that data was collected, where it was sourced, how it was traded, and who approved what” , explains Savic. Slovenia has already faced similar problems. “And that could lead to misidentifications.”
One of the main issues for Jakubowska is how Prüm II could standardize the use of facial recognition by police forces in Europe. “What really concerns us is the extent to which this Prüm II proposal could encourage the creation of databases of facial images and the application of algorithms to these databases to perform facial recognition,” says -she. According to the proposal, the EU will pay the cost of connecting the databases to Prüm II, which includes the cost of creating new national databases of facial images. Sixty years after its invention, facial recognition is still in its infancy.
• European Parliament, Cross-border cooperation to combat terrorism and cross-border crime: automated data exchange for police cooperation (Prüm II)2021/0410(COD)
• European Commission, Proposal for a regulation on automated data exchange for police cooperation (“Prüm II”), COM/2021/784 final
• European Commission, Police Cooperation Code: Boosting police cooperation across borders for enhanced securitypress release, December 2021
• European Commission, EU police cooperation code – tackling cross-border serious & organized crime
• Council of the EU, Council Decision 2008/616/JHA on the implementation of Decision 2008/615/JHA on the stepping up of cross-border cooperation, particularly in combating terrorism and cross-border crime
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