Italy Bans Facial Recognition Tech… Except For Cops

from the not-much-of-a-ban-then,-is-it dept

In March, the Italian government not-so-politely asked Clearview to leave, bestowing upon the toxic facial recognition tech company a $21 million fine as a parting gift. Citing the company’s, um, clear violations of the GDPR, the government added to the tab Clearview has racked up in Europe, now surpassing $50 million.

The company, of course, denied all wrongdoing or liability, stating it does not do business in any of the countries in which it had been fined. But that’s hardly the point. The point is Clearview’s webscraping affects everyone everywhere, no matter where Clearview actually offers access to its multi-billion image database or its facial recognition AI. The laws were still violated, even if Clearview had never physically set foot in those countries.

European governments are paying more attention to facial recognition tech these days. The European Union has some pretty strong privacy laws which make carefree deployments of facial recognition tech — especially by private parties — almost impossible. But, like everywhere in the world, European citizens are raising concerns about pervasive surveillance tech, something that becomes much more worrying when it turns people going about their day-to-day business into little more than data points in massive government collections.

The ban currently in effect in Italy is a bit weird, though. It seemingly forbids use by everyone, including government entities, but contains a massive loophole that would make law enforcement entities the only ones permitted to use the “banned” tech.

Italy prohibited the use of facial recognition and ‘smart glasses’ on Monday as its Data Protection Agency issued a rebuke to two municipalities experimenting with the technologies.

Facial recognition systems using biometric data will not be allowed until a specific law is adopted or at least until the end of next year, the privacy watchdog said.

The exception is when such technologies play a role in judicial investigations or the fight against crime.

Yeah, that’s a pretty big exception. And it’s really weird because the prohibition was seemingly prompted by law enforcement’s planned use of the tech.

The agency was reacting to measures taken in the southern Italian city of Lecce, where authorities said they would begin using a technology based on facial recognition.


The privacy watchdog also targeted the Tuscan city of Arezzo, where local police were due to be equipped with infrared super glasses that can recognise car number plates.

The Reuters report doesn’t provide details on what Lecce’s facial recognition plans entailed, but one imagines the word “authorities” also covers local law enforcement officials. And while the second incident refers only to “super glasses” with built-in plate recognition, presumably the goal is to add facial recognition tech to the eyewear in the future.

And it’s not really a ban. I mean, it’s obviously not a ban when law enforcement still has basically on-demand access to facial recognition tech. But the Data Protection Agency refers to this as a “moratorium” that simply pauses facial recognition use while the government figures out how to best regulate it.

Still, there’s an outside chance a meaningful ban that covers law enforcement deployment could be put in place. As Thomas Macaulay reports for The Next Web, one Italian lawmaker wants something wider reaching and far more permanent put in place.

Last week, Brando Benifei, an Italian MEP and Co-Rapporter of the AI Act, called for the EU’s new regulation to include an outright ban on biometric mass surveillance.

“Today there are two different loopholes in the ‘ban’ proposed by the Commission: private spaces and ‘ex-post’ recognition are not covered, but there are also exceptions regarding some criminal investigations and prosecutions,” he said. “We should — and I will do my best to — have a complete ban in the Parliament.”

This development will be worth keeping an eye on, especially once the exception to the ban starts getting some use. Pretty much everything law enforcement does can be described as “investigatory” or “fighting crime.” Until this exemption is refined or restricted meaningfully, this ban will have almost zero effect on use of the tech by Italian law enforcement agencies.

Filed Under: data protection agency, facial recognition, italy, police, privacy, surveillance

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