Civil Society’s Call to the European Commission for a Ban on Biometric Mass Surveillance and Introduction of Red Lines on AI

On December 7, 2020, the European Commission (EC) registered and approved a request for a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) entitled Reclaim Your Face: Ban Biometric Mass Surveillance. 


On October 15, 2020 the organisers of Reclaim Your Face, a pan-European campaign supported by 44 civil society organizations such as Access Now, European Digital Rights (EDRi) and Privacy International, sent a request for a ECI to the Commission. This civil society initiative called on the European Commission to “strictly regulate the use of biometric technologies in order to avoid undue interference with fundamental rights” and asked “the Commission to prohibit, in law and in practice, indiscriminate or arbitrarily-targeted uses of biometrics which can lead to unlawful mass surveillance”. Following the ECI’s registration approval, on January 12, 2020, EDRi, one of the organisations coordinating the campaign with 61 other civil society organisations, sent an open letter to the European Commission in which they reiterated their call for a biometric mass surveillance technologies ban while also “demanding red lines for the applications of AI that threaten fundamental rights”. 


Civil Citizens’ Initiative Call for a Ban on Biometric 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.”

Source: Commission Decision on the registration of the citizens’ initiative


In the annex of the ECI’s initiative, the group underlined that the use of biometric data by public, national and EU law enforcement agencies and private entities for the identification or profiling of people in public spaces has seen a marked increase, which, according to them, constitutes “an inherently unnecessary and disproportionate interference in a wide range of fundamental rights, including privacy and data protection”. 

The group has already publicly explained the reasons for their call for these technologies to be banned, in a workshop held in December 2020. For instance, in their view these technologies could lead to violations of the right to non-discrimination, privacy, assembly, freedom of expression but also from the spectrum of data protection.


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 [Law Enforcement Directive] to ensure that EU law explicitly and specifically prohibits biometric mass surveillance.” 

Source: ECI Additional Information – Civil society initiative for a ban on biometric mass surveillance practices 


The organisers of the campaign also provided the EC with a proposal for a draft legal act in which they highlighted that the upcoming EU legislative initiative on Artificial Intelligence, expected in 2021, provides an opportunity for the stricter regulation of uses of biometric technologies”. Indeed, “[t]he Commission’s 2020 Inception Impact Assessment to the Artificial Intelligence White Paper included legal options on biometrics showing that regulating the matter is within the Commission‘s competences as defined by the Treaties”. However, the authors of the civil society initiative fear that it is still unclear if the legal options found in this White Paper will be enough to effectively ban biometric mass surveillance technologies.

“However, to ensure a specific and explicit set of red lines against the most harmful uses of biometric technologies, we call for a targeted and binding legislative proposal in secondary European law to provide stronger and more specific provisions based upon and with full respect for the general prohibition of biometric processing in the GDPR and the LED (…).”

Following their request, via a decision published on 7th December 2020, the Commission noted that “none of the parts of the initiative manifestly falls outside the framework of the Commission’s powers” (except for the annex which could nevertheless be used, according to the EC, as a form of “guidance”) and that as “the group of organisers has provided appropriate evidence that it [the initiative] fulfils the requirements”, the latter met all the requirements and should therefore be registered. 


The registration of the ECI by the European Commission highlights some interesting new factors that may influence the regulation of AI in Europe.

First, civil society is becoming more and more aware of the massive AI deployment but is also more concerned about mobilizing around having a voice on AI regulation and its limitations. For instance, following the Reclaim Your Name Campaign’s registration by the European Commission, the ECI organisers expressed their concerns about the upcoming EC legislative act on AI (expected in the first quarter of 2021) in an open letter to the European Commission. The letter did not only highlighted their desire for biometric mass surveillance technology to be banned, but it also called on the EC to introduce red lines around some of the uses and intended purposes of AI.


Civil Society’s Call for the Introduction of Red Lines in the Upcoming European Commission Proposal on Artificial Intelligence


On January 12, 2020,  EDRi, together with 61 other civil society organisations, sent an open letter to the European Commission demanding red lines for the applications of AI that threaten fundamental rights. 

As the European Commission’s legislative proposal on artificial intelligence is expected in the first quarter of 2021, the signatories of the open letter “call[ed] for regulatory limits on deployments of artificial intelligence that unduly restrict human rights”.


“The development of AI offers great potential to benefit people and society. However, socially-beneficial innovation can only be achieved when we guarantee that uses are safe, legal, and do not discriminate. The European Union now has the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure democratic oversight and clear regulation before technologies are deployed.”

Source: Open letter: Civil society call for the introduction of red lines in the upcoming European Commission proposal on Artificial Intelligence


In the letter, the group considered it “vital that the upcoming regulatory proposal establishes in law clear limitations as to what can be considered lawful uses of AI”, particularly with regard to the following issues:

  • The exacerbation of structural discrimination, exclusion and collective harms;
  • The restriction of and discriminatory access to vital services such as health care and social security;
  • The surveillance of workers and infringement of workers’ fundamental rights;
  • The impeding of fair access to justice and procedural rights;
  • The use of systems which make inferences and predictions about our most sensitive characteristics, behaviours and thoughts;
  • The manipulation or control of human behaviour and associated threats to human dignity, agency, and collective democracy.


Moreover, in addition to highlighting their desire to see biometric mass surveillance technology prohibited, they provided a list of other non-exhaustive examples of AI uses which they also suggest should be prohibited:

  • Use of AI at the border and in migration control
  • Social scoring and AI systems determining access to social rights and benefits
  • Predictive policing
  • Use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system and pre-trial context


The letter concluded by stating that “these examples illustrate the need for an ambitious artificial intelligence proposal in 2021 which foregrounds people’s rights and freedoms”. Finally, the signatories of the letter detailed what they wished to see included in the next EC legislative proposal on AI:

1) “An explicit ban on the indiscriminate or arbitrarily-targeted use of biometrics in public or publicly-accessible spaces which can lead to mass surveillance” 

2) “Legal restrictions or legislative red-lines on the uses” of AI “which contravene fundamental rights”   

3) “The explicit inclusion of marginalised and affected communities in the development of EU AI legislation and policy moving forward”



To conclude, civil society action and the European Commission’s upcoming legislative act on AI ensure that 2021 will be a promising year for the regulation of AI. From this point onwards, it remains to be seen whether the EC will follow the ECI’s position and will, first, consider whether it is “appropriate to adopt a proposal for a legal act” which aims to ban biometric surveillance technologies or, whether the Commission will adopt a different approach and allow the deployment of such technologies while determining the ways in which they can be used and the conditions that must be met. Second, it also remains to be seen whether the EC will incorporate some of the points raised in the EDRi’s open letter in its soon to be expected legislative act on AI. Third, it remains to be seen whether the European Citizen Initiative will reach one million signatures within twelve months, as required by the Commission.



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