Biometric mass surveillance, civic space, and democracy: why and how civil society should mobilise

Published: 27 January 2022

The deployment of certain technologies by public and private actors across several EU countries can have a chilling effect on civic space and democracy. While often the arguments such as the efficiency of public administrations or public safety are used to justify the implementation of certain systems or technologies, there is also a lack of transparency and accountability that are essential elements of any democratic system. This can give rise to worrying consequences such as discrimination or surveillance of opposition thinkers, journalists, or activists, for example. 

For civil society organisations, it is important to be aware of possible future challenges that could affect their work or organisations. The use of biometric mass surveillance technologies is one of those worrying trends across Europe and it is essential that civil society across the continent have the understanding and capacity to play its watchdog role effectively on such issues.

In light of this, in December 2021 Civitates invited its grantee partners working towards strong and resilient civil society and Civitates-supported network organisation –  EDRi that is working to defend and advance digital rights in Europe, to discuss the issue of biometric mass surveillance. The meeting aimed to raise awareness among civil society organisations on the topic and provide them with concrete ways to participate in the debate around this issue.

Biometric mass surveillance affects our rights and freedoms

Ella Jakubowska, policy and campaigns advisor at EDRi and the lead of the Reclaim Your Face campaign shared how technology can impact civic space and democracy and how the Reclaim your face Campaign can be an opportunity for civil society to inform themselves, get involved and make their voices heard on the topic of biometric mass surveillance.

As described on the Reclaim Your Face website, “biometric data are bits of data that are unique to our bodies and behaviours, which divulge sensitive information about who we are. For example, our faces can be used for facial recognition to make a prediction or assessment about us – and so can our eyes, veins, voices, the way we walk or type on a keyboard, and much more.”

When such data is collected, it affects us in numerous ways. “It not only obliterates your anonymity but governments and companies are storing this information in databases, based on which they create a picture of who you are, what you do and feel,” – elaborates Ella.

The data collected through biometric mass surveillance is searchable across time and space. “If you are someone that raises an opposition voice, this data allows the authorities to check what you were doing, where you were going three years ago, for example,” – explains Ella. “It may sound very dystopian, but there are plenty of harmful examples of how biometric mass surveillance is used in harmful ways across Europe.”

An EDRi report on biometric mass surveillance shows that there are surveillance pilots in every EU country and such surveillance is usually done without reasonable suspicion, it treats everyone as a potential suspect. There are pilots of this in every EU country. At the same time, the problem hasn’t attracted public attention. Ella further clarifies that the effects on civic space and democracy could be detrimental as “When people think they have been watched all the time, this chills their free expression and they exercise the right not to express yourself, and thus their rights to self-determination are affected. If we are not allowed to exist in private spaces anonymously, this can prevent us from talking to journalists, voting, in short, affect all our other rights and freedoms.”,

The Reclaim Your Face campaign calls on the EU to strictly regulate the use of biometric technologies to avoid undue interference with fundamental rights.

“We should also convince people that their privacy is important. Arguments like ‘I have nothing to hide, why should I care?’ are dangerous as we all have a lot to protect and how biometric mass surveillance can infringe on our education, access to health care, etc. is not to be undermined. That’s why partnering more with journalists to help people understand concretely why and how this makes us less safe than safer is important” – adds Ella. “CSOs should also be aware of the risks and have the capacity to process such information and be able to react. Joint efforts and coalitions are important to counter the unintended and intended consequences of digitalisation. For this, we need data protection and proper safeguards and controls.”

There are several small ‘wins’ that have occurred across Europe thanks to the mobilisation of citizens and civil society, including a moratorium on the use of such technologies in Italy or the new German government calling for a European ban on biometric mass surveillance.  However, this is just the start, and the current movement represents an opportunity for civil society to make its voice heard, defend democracy and shape the digital sphere in a way that is conducive to democracy and fundamental rights.

More information on how to get involved can be found on the Reclaim your Face website.