Will EU rules on facial recognition put Malta’s Safe City in jeopardy?

New rules on artificial intelligence unveiled by the European Commission and set to be debated on Thursday by MEPs, clearly throw facial recognition out the window and could spell more trouble for Malta’s Safe City project

While the Maltese government seems to still be contemplating the exact form that its controversial Safe City surveillance programme will take, MEPs on the Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) will on Thursday begin debating a European Commission proposal for new and improved artificial intelligence rules that could have a fundamental effect on the government’s surveillance aspirations.

But the debate’s potential repercussions on Malta’s mass surveillance designs will not have a Maltese voice, as there is no Maltese MEP on the Committee that will discusses the Commission’s fresh proposals for governing the area of artificial intelligence.

Malta’s Safe City project had been first introduced by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as a facial recognition CCTV system, which was to be implemented first in problem and crime-hit areas such as Paceville and Marsa.

The announcement had been met with widespread criticism both on a Maltese and an EU level, not just over the use of facial recognition but also because of the government’s chosen partner, China’s Huawei, which itself has been embroiled in a number of international surveillance controversies.

Since then, Safe City had backtracked on the project’s contentious facial recognition element over fears of transgressing Maltese and EU laws, and has said that even though the system has facial recognition capability, it will not be employed.

What will be deployed now, according to Safe City Malta director Joe Cuschieri, will be what he described recently to MaltaToday as “advanced video surveillance”, which can detect certain disturbances in the areas under surveillance.

This watered down version may, however, still fall foul of EU law. The technology will still need approval on at least at EU level, and those particular goal posts may be shifting , even significantly, depending on the eventual course that the debate in Parliament and ensuing negotiations with Council and the Commission take.

As matters stand when it comes to the surveillance aspect of AI, the Commission appear to have a distinct aversion to any form of ‘generalised’ surveillance, while an even stiffer opposition to any potential intrusions on civil liberties posed by AI being used in surveillance could be expected to be put up by Parliament.

The JURI debate will now begin thrashing out the finer points of those proposals, and the outcome of those debates may spell trouble for Malta’s mass surveillance project.

Whatever the case, even before reaching Parliament for debate, the prospect of allowing for facial recognition as previously touted by Muscat’s government has now been clearly thrown out the window, as Cuschieri had predicted.

Speaking today, European Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager did not mince her words when she said: “There is no room for mass surveillance in our society. That's why in our proposal, the use of biometric identification in public places is prohibited by principle. We propose very narrow exceptions that are strictly defined, limited and regulated. Those are extreme cases such as when police authorities need it in search for a missing child or an imminent terrorism threat.”

The Commission further stipulated in a statement how, “In particular, all remote biometric identification systems are considered high risk and subject to strict requirements. Their live use in publicly accessible spaces for law enforcement purposes is prohibited in principle.”

Just how this consideration and other aspects of the new rules will or will not fit into the Safe City project will remain to be seen, and project’s eventual form will in all likelihood depend on the eventual form that the new rules take.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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