Leaked Reports Show EU Police Are Planning a Pan-European Network of Facial Recognition Databases

Although new legislation following the report’s recommendation is not yet on the table, preparatory work is ongoing. Information provided by the European Commission to the European Parliament last November shows that almost 700,000 euros (about $750,000) are going to a study by consultancy firm Deloitte on possible changes to the Prüm system, with one part of the work looking at facial recognition technology. The European Commission has also, separately, paid 500,000 euros to a consortium of public agencies led by the Estonian Forensic Science Institute to “map the current situation of facial recognition in criminal investigations in all EU Member States,” with the aim of moving “towards the possible exchange of facial data,” according to a project presentation sent to national representatives in Brussels.

“This is concerning on a national level and on a European level, especially as some EU countries veer towards more authoritarian governments,” said Edin Omanovic, advocacy director for Privacy International. Omanovic worries about a pan-European face database being used for “politically motivated surveillance” and not just standard police work. The possibility of pervasive, unjustified, or illegal surveillance is one of many critiques of facial recognition technology. Another is that it is notoriously inaccurate, particularly for people of color.

“Without the transparency and legal safeguards for facial recognition technology to be lawful,” said Omanovic, “there should be a moratorium on it.”

The EU has taken big steps to connect a host of migration and security databases in recent years. New legislation passed last April established a database that will hold the fingerprints, facial images, and other personal data of up to 300 million non-EU nationals, merging data from five separate systems. According to the report by 10 police forces, Deloitte consultants proposed doing the same with police facial images, but the idea was met with unanimous opposition from law enforcement officials.

Nonetheless, the report recommends linking all of EU member states’ facial databases, which would seem to have the same practical effect. In another internal EU police report — this one from a working group on Prüm that looked at the exchange of drivers’ license data — police note that “a network of interconnected national registers can be regarded as a virtual European register.”

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