New German government to ban facial recognition and mass surveillance

“We reject comprehensive video surveillance and the use of biometric recognition for surveillance purposes. The right to anonymity, both in public spaces and on the Internet, must be guaranteed,” the German coalition agreement reads. [Clemens Bilan/EPA]

Germany’s ‘traffic light‘ coalition plans to ban biometric facial recognition and restrict the usage of mass surveillance tools, which marks a departure from the stance of the former government.

In the coalition agreement between the German social democrats, the greens, and the liberal FDP presented on Wednesday (24 November), the three parties committed to banning facial recognition technologies in public spaces and restricting the use of mass surveillance tools to a minimum.

“We reject comprehensive video surveillance and the use of biometric recognition for surveillance purposes. The right to anonymity, both in public spaces and on the internet, must be guaranteed,” the agreement reads.

German parties seal deal on new 'traffic light' coalition

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the business-friendly liberal FDP have finalised their coalition agreement for a new government, two months after the general elections, with Olaf Scholz to succeed Angela Merkel as the new chancellor in December. EURACTIV Germany reports.

According to the agreement, the three parties will also push for the ban of facial recognition on the European level – in the AI Act currently under debate.

The move marks a clear departure from the former conservative-led government’s approach. In 2020 German interior minister Horst Seehofer announced plans to use automatic facial recognition in numerous train stations and airports.

Since then, German authorities have accumulated massive amounts of biometric data.

However, Germany is not alone in its use of facial recognition. According to a recent study, law enforcement authorities in 10 other EU countries are currently using the technology, with eight more member states expected to follow suit.

Facial recognition technologies already used in 11 EU countries and counting, report says

Law enforcement authorities in 11 European countries are already using biometric recognition systems in their investigations and eight more are to follow, a new study points out, warning of the technology’s impact on fundamental rights.

Success for civil society

Various civil society groups praised Germany’s departure from the usage of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance.

A group of 65 civil society organisations have already launched a campaign called ‘Reclaim your face’ in 2020 that called on the European Commission to strictly regulate the use of biometric technologies over fears of human rights infringements.

“It is a great achievement for the Reclaim Your Face campaign that our demand for a Europe without biometric surveillance was included in the German government coalition agreement,” Matthias Marx, spokesperson of the Chaos Computer Club, said in a statement.

Konstantin Macher of the NGO digitalcourage added that “this is an important milestone for our campaign’s objectives to protect people’s rights and freedoms.”

Industry representatives also support the approach of the coming German government.

Oliver Süme, Chairman of eco, a trade association, welcome the approach of the new German government as the right move.

“In the public sector… that is not an appropriate technology for security,” Süme told EURACTIV.

MEPs demand strict rules over AI applications in criminal matters

Ahead of the artificial intelligence regulation, MEPs insisted that its use by law enforcement authorities and in the judiciary be subject to tight controls in Strasbourg on Monday (October 4).

Debates on the EU level

The EU has already proposed restricting facial recognition in the AI Act, which is currently being negotiated on the EU level. However, the current legal proposal includes several exceptions to counter imminent dangers, such as terrorism or kidnapping, where law enforcement’s use of facial recognition is allowed.

However, civil society is not alone in its call for the ban of facial recognition on the EU level.

The European Parliament is also on board. In early October, it passed a resolution that called for the ban of facial recognition technology in public spaces, thereby sending a strong signal to co-legislators in member states.

The EU data watchdogs have also voiced concerns. Pointing to the “extremely high” risks for privacy, the watchdogs called for a general ban of the technology.

As things look right now, critics have won a strong supporter in Europe’s largest member state.

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[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]

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