Czech NGO takes part in new initiative calling for ban on biometric mass surveillance in EU

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Earlier this week, a group of EU-watchdogs launched a European Citizens' Initiative calling for a ban on biometric mass surveillance.If the petition manages to gather at least one million signatures from seven EU member states it will force a debate on the topic in the European Parliament and a response from the European Commission. One of the organisers of the initiative is Hynek Trojánek from the Czech NGO luridicum Remedium. I asked what led him to take part in the action.

“Camera systems using biometrics are being introduced across European countries, including the Czech Republic. The problem is that they are often introduced without much surrounding publicity, or public debate regarding the impact of biometrics on public space monitoring.

“As the only Czech digital regional organisation that deals with this topic we considered it important that a voice rejecting mass biometric surveillance be heard. That is the reason why we supported the petition as well as other materials, such as a legal study on this topic for the Czech public.”

Such systems are put in place for security reasons. Why should a common, law abiding EU citizen fear them?

Václav Havel Airport Prague,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“We have been dealing with cameras for quite a long time in our organization. Biometrics bring a whole new risk. Their mass use would mean a total transformation of public spaces as we know them. This could lead to a reluctance to use our public spaces as areas for meetings and expressing opinions, for example through demonstrations, because of the fear of being recognised.

“The problem is that this data can be linked to other data, for example on social networks. We think this is an invasion of privacy and needs to be challenged.”

The Prague police lobbied for the use of facial recognition cameras at several locations in 2019. Prague Airport already has these cameras. What is the situation like in the Czech Republic compared with other EU states?

“It is difficult to make a comparison, because the installation of these systems is non-transparent in the Czech Republic and it is often hard to find out whether they are being used. As far as we know, police efforts to install cameras in parts of Prague have been stopped and they are only being used at Prague Airport.

“However, it is very hard to find out if cameras are using biometrics, because this information is often classified by the police. What we do know is that even this extensive biometric monitoring at the airport does not meet legal standards. For example, it breaches data protection laws. Our legal study, published two weeks ago, did not show that this is being looked into.

“That said, while this biometric surveillance is problematic, it can be said in general that EU member states still consider privacy to be a great value. This in contrast to China, where the use of this software could be likened to a global dystopia.

“Therefore, we can perhaps be glad that it is possible to have a discussion here about biometric surveillance at all.”