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EU plans to stamp out creeping public surveillance of European citizens

Cameras sit above a Visit Malta stall in Valletta.

The Maltese government’s beleaguered “Safe City” (or ‘Big Brother’) plans appear to have suffered a double blow.

The Financial Times yesterday revealed that the European Commission was planning on introducing sweeping regulations in a bid to limit “the indiscriminate use of facial recognition technology’’ by companies and public authorities.

These latest developments appear to be a response to growing public concern about privacy and mass surveillance including through CCTVs equipped with facial technology and artificial technology.

According to senior European Commission sources, the new regulations which form part of a proposed wider overhaul in the way Europe regulates Artificial Intelligence, will also give EU citizens explicit rights over the use of their facial recognition data.

These new rules would build on and further reinforce existing privacy and data protection laws including the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR regulates the processing of personal data including storage and use of images of faces and other biometric data.

Last month, the European Data Protection Board, the body empowered to issue guidance under GDPR, also adopted new guidelines on Video Surveillance. These are designed to provide clarification on the processing of citizens’ personal data in relation to the GDPR while reinforcing the importance of citizens’ fundamental right to privacy and guarding against misuse.

Video surveillance and facial recognition technology used in conjunction with CCTV has massive implications on private citizens’ data protection rights which have been tightened after the introduction of the GDPR in May 2018. As such, the EDPB reminded Member States that the “general principles in GDPR should always be carefully considered when dealing with video surveillance.”

Additionally, the use of biometric data and in particular facial recognition, increases the risk of data subjects’ rights being breached. They state that “it is crucial that recourse to such technologies take place with due respect to the principles of lawfulness, necessity, and proportionality” including ascertaining whether “less intrusive means” are available.

The guidelines state that “video surveillance is not by default a necessity when there are other means to achieve the underlying purpose”. If video surveillance and biometric data collection is presented as the only option, the EDPB said that society risks accepting the lack of privacy as a cultural norm, when this should not be the case.

In October 2018, the Maltese government announced that they would be launching facial recognition CCTV in Paceville and Marsa, before rolling it out across the island. Proposed to address “anti-social behavior hotspots”, the pilot would be rolled out via a collaboration between Chinese tech giant Huawei and Safe City, a government owned company.

Huawei was purportedly introduced to Malta by Konrad Mizzi’s wife Sai, who at the time was in receipt of a €13,000 a month package for her role as special envoy to Asia.

Despite Muscat’s announcement, Director of Safe City and MFSA supremo, Joseph Cuscheri said that the technology was unlikely to be deployed as it “would require the scrutiny and clearance of privacy controllers at both national and EU level.” Instead they would be introducing “advanced video surveillance” instead, providing very little clarification of what exactly that is.

Bob Strayer, the US deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international affairs said that the collaboration with Huawei “would be a cause for concern because that data could end up back in places such as Beijing where it would not be used for the purposes that we want”.

Huawei has come under significant international scrutiny in recent months as it has seen senior staff members arrested for fraud, intellectual property theft, and espionage. In addition to this its operations and technologies have either been banned, or severely restricted in a growing number of countries.

The company was described as presenting a “mortal danger” to open societies, by George Soros at the World Economic Forum earlier this year.

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