Industry ‘must listen’ to facial recognition concerns, Huawei chief says

Huawei's EU Chief, Abraham Liu. [Huawei]

This article is part of our special report Striking a balance: IT infrastructure and digital sovereignty.

European industry must be sensitive to the concerns of citizens regarding the widespread use of facial recognition technologies and its possible impact on privacy, Huawei’s European chief has told EURACTIV.

“There are people [in Europe] who are sensitive about facial recognition technologies. They are worried about protecting their privacy,” Huawei’s EU head, Abraham Liu, told EURACTIV on the sidelines of his recent appearance at the European Parliament in Brussels. “Industry must listen to those concerns,” Liu added.

The deployment of facial recognition software irks many in Europe. A case in point has been the recent concerns aired by privacy advocates in Serbia, where Huawei has installed a network of security cameras reportedly equipped with facial recognition technology in Belgrade. There are plans to cover around 800 locations throughout the city with around 1,000 cameras.

“The system can be used to trail political opponents, monitor regime critics at any moment, which is completely against the law,” said Serbia’s former commissioner for personal data protection, Rodoljub Šabić.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has recently said that police in the city have capacities to count “each head” at anti-government gatherings, prompting recent anti-government protestors to target the cameras at recent rallies, taping over the lenses and attempting to stop the recordings.

In response to the worries, Huawei said that it “complies with all applicable laws and regulations” in Serbia.

Speaking to EURACTIV, Liu struck a more conscientious tone, saying that there are social and cultural differences even amongst European states with regards to the deployment of facial recognition technologies, and these must be taken into account in the rollout of these technologies.

At the EU level, the European Commission is expected to deliver new rules that will give citizens rights over the use of their facial recognition data. This is part of a pledge made by incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to establish a framework for Artificial Intelligence and Ethics within the first 100 days after the new college of commissioners takes office.

This move follows a June recommendation from the Commission’s High-Level Group on Artificial Intelligence and Ethics, which stated that consent must be given in the automatic identification of individuals through the use of AI.

'Adverse impacts' of Artificial Intelligence could pave way for regulation, EU report says

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Liu’s reading of the cultural multifariousness of European perspectives on facial recognition technologies is well-founded: French President Emmanuel Macron is gearing up to release his country’s new ID programme, called ‘Alicem’ in November, which will employ facial recognition technologies for identity verification purposes.

The government is pitching the software as allowing “any individual who decides to use it to prove his identity on the internet in a secure manner,”

However, even within France, there have been divisions, with the country’s data regulator, the CNIL, saying the technology breaches consent rules outlined in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which state that users must give their permission before their biometric data can be stored.

Facial recognition in airports

Meanwhile, Huawei is continuing to deploy facial recognition technologies more widely, which, for example, could soon be put into practice in Europe as part of the plans to develop ‘smart airports.’

It transpired earlier this month that the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague excluded two bids from tenders for hardware supply, worth seven million Czech Korunas, over security issues related to Huawei and ZTE. The airport acted after receiving advice from the Czech National Office for Cyber ​​and Information Security.

The two tenders, launched in September, were for offering CCTV and security services in the airport – an area where Huawei, in particular, has been attempting to make headway over recent months.

The company’s 5G technologies were recently rolled out at the newly opened Beijing Daxing International Airport, now the largest single terminal in the world.

The 5G network infrastructure that the company has put into practice at the airport allows for the use of facial recognition technologies for check-in, security clearance and boarding. In such cases, passengers aren’t required to show ID, nor present boarding passes. And this week, Huawei has also been rallying the benefits of facial recognition technologies as part of airport infrastructure, at India’s Mobile Congress.

EURACTIV understands that Huawei has been in talks with other airports across Europe about involvement in developing their digital infrastructure. One official speaking at the company’s EcoConnect conference in Shanghai told EURACTIV the company had specifically been speaking with Munich airport recently.

With regards to specific airports, however, Liu was unambiguous in saying that each airport should “have its own strategy” on the potential implementation of smart technologies.

“We will always maintain very high ethical standards,” Liu said. “Internationally, we respect all treaties and will always take into account the needs and requirements of our customers all over the world.”

“In terms of facial recognition technologies, people all over the world have different mindsets, and it’s our responsibility to be sensitive to them,” he said.

Europeans still anxious about AI facial recognition

Technology experts are usually among the first to embrace new and emerging digital tools. But that idea was put to the test at a stakeholders’ gathering about artificial-intelligence–enabled facial recognition this week at the Microsoft Center in Brussels.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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