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EU citizens’ initiative to ban biometric surveillance gets nod from EC

The European Commission has decided to register a European Citizens’ Initiative to ban biometric mass surveillance practices which contends that uses of biometric surveillance in EU states violate EU data protection law and restrict citizens’ right to free speech and expression.

The proposal by the European Citizens’ Initiative, called Civil society initiative for a ban on biometric mass surveillance practices, calls on the European Commission to frame regulations to ban the use of biometric surveillance tools by law enforcement authorities in all EU member states.

“We ask the Commission to prohibit, in law and in practice, indiscriminate or arbitrarily-targeted uses of biometrics which can lead to unlawful mass surveillance. These intrusive systems must not be developed, deployed (even on a trial basis) or used by public or private entities insofar as they can lead to unnecessary or disproportionate interference with people’s fundamental rights,” said the backers of the initiative.

“Evidence shows that uses of biometric mass surveillance in Member States and by EU agencies have resulted in violations of EU data protection law, and unduly restricted people‘s rights including their privacy, right to free speech, right to protest and not to be discriminated against. The widespread use of biometric surveillance, profiling and prediction is a threat to the rule of law and our most basic freedoms.

“In this ECI, we therefore urge the Commission to propose a legal act which will build upon, and fully respect, the general prohibitions in the GDPR and the LED to ensure that EU law explicitly and specifically prohibits biometric mass surveillance,” they added.

Now that the initiative has been registered, organisers will have to obtain at least one million signatures in its support from at least a quarter of EU member states to make it binding upon the European Commission to make laws to that affect or provide a reason for not doing so.

However, it remains to be seen if the European Commission will be willing to completely ban the use of biometric surveillance tools by law enforcement authorities, considering the importance of such technologies to track suspicious persons and monitor sensitive buildings and locations.

In April 2019, the European Parliament voted in favour of creating a centralised biometric database to be used by law enforcement authorities in every country in the Schengen area to better detect security threats, to identity fraud, and to prevent and combat irregular migration.

The centralised biometric database, called the Common Identity Repository (CIR), includes personal records and unique biometric details of nearly all migrants and non-EU citizens living in the Schengen area. It serves as a common repository for law enforcement authorities who, until now, have had to check multiple country-specific databases to ascertain identities of migrants and check identity fraud.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, told POLITICO in an e-mailed statement that the legislation that legalised the centralised biometrics database will “fix fragmentation of European efforts to enhance security, close information gaps and address the risks of terrorists and serious criminals crossing our borders undetected.”

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