Briguglio asks EU to demand information from Malta on Safe City CCTV project

Safe City CCTV system will carry out advanced video surveillance using Huawei technology on so called problem areas

There has been no public consultation on the Huawei-designed CCTV system to be deployed in Paceville and Marsa
There has been no public consultation on the Huawei-designed CCTV system to be deployed in Paceville and Marsa

The Nationalist candidate Michael Briguglio has written to the EU’s data protection supervisor and various EU Commissioners to ask the Maltese government to publish detailed information about its “Safe City” project, an advanced video surveillance project in Paceville and Marsa. 

Although originally billed as a facial recognition CCTV system devised in partnership with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, Safe City director Joseph Cuschieri has now said there was no reasonable justification for such an instrusive CCTV system. 

In his letter to security commissioner Julian King, justice commissioner Vera Jouruva, digital society commissioner Mariya Gabriel, and EDPS Giovanni Buttarelli, Briguglio asked the EU to assess whether Malta has the adequate legislative framework to allow the implementation of the Safe City project, and whether it fulfils the requirements of necessity and proportionality in line with EU data protection rules and the Police Directive. 

The Safe City advanced surveillance system will be implemented by the government company Safe City Malta, part of the government’s public-private partnership arm Projects Malta, using artificial intelligence-backed CCTV that can detect changes in the atmosphere it is monitoring, and is developed by Chinese firm Huawei, which has been criticised for its allegiance to Chinese state intelligence agencies. 

But UN privacy rapporteur Prof. Joseph Cannataci says such a project would need to be in line with EU privacy and surveillance rules, which point to the need for any intrusion within with one’s privacy to be envisaged in the law, necessary and proportionate to its aim in a democratic society. 

“In particular, the GDPR legislation has introduced stringent rules on the use of CCTV and face recognition technology. The Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland has recently noted that there are a number of outstanding issues with the use of facial recognition technology in the EU, particularly in relation to consent, and that compliance of this feature with GDPR is not settled,” Briguglio said in his letter. 

“It should be noted that the use of invasive technology such as AI/CCTV facial recognition in public spaces may lead as a tool for control and repression of citizens’ liberties, including their right to privacy, to freedom of expression, or to freedom of assembly in case of public protests. Citizens will all be treated as potential criminals or terrorists, fostering self-censorship and corroding democratic life. As noted by the New York Times, ‘even the perception of surveillance can keep the public in line’,” Briguglio said.

MaltaToday on Sunday reported that the much-vaunted facial recognition CCTV system will not be deployed in Malta, as privacy rules and a lack of justification for the invasiveness of the Chinese-designed technology would probably make it illegal.

Joseph Cuschieri, a director of the government company Safe City Malta, told MaltaToday that although even Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced the controversial facial recognition CCTV during Budget 2019, Safe City Malta was not deploying it.

“Although the Safe City technology has advanced facial recognition capability, Safe City Malta is not planning to deploy this,” Cuschieri said, instead saying that the CCTV system that will be installed in Paceville and Marsa will be ‘advanced video surveillance’.

“In other jurisdictions, [facial recognition CCTV] has been deployed in situations where sensitive security issues are concerned, such as border controls or where a high risk of terrorism exists. Such deployment would require the scrutiny and clearance of privacy controllers at both national and EU level,” Cuschieri said.

Instead Safe City Malta will be deploying Huawei’s advanced video surveillance, which would still need clearance from data and privacy controllers at national and EU level.

Cuschieri said that advanced video surveillance can detect changes in the areas being monitored, such as a commotion. From a control centre, law enforcement units will be able to have access to the surveillance, while field officers on the beat can be equipped with handheld HD devices that will be transmitted with instant images of problem areas.

“A control centre will be monitoring the areas, but the system will be able to detect unexpected crowd densities or loitering in selected specific areas which is why we call them advanced: they can detect changes that instantly require police intervention.”

Cuschieri said that advance video surveillance can help law enforcement prevent crime by being first on the scene in cases where the system detects changes in the environment it monitors. “We are currently at planning stage and we are formulating detailed plans for deployment for the fourth quarter of 2019.”

UN expert’s view

Critics of the invasive technology will breathe a sigh of relief after both the Prime Minister and the home affairs minister recently said facial recognition CCTV would be deployed in ‘problem areas’ like Paceville and Marsa.

But the United Nations’ special rapporteur on privacy, Prof. Joe Cannataci, had already told MaltaToday when news broke of Safe City Malta’s plans with Huawei, that only a strong justification – such as a risk of a terror attack – could justify such a technology in Malta.

“That strong justification must be provided for by law,” Cannataci said, having just returned from an official UN mission to Germany to examine CCTV systems being deployed by police there.

“Malta’s laws, especially under EU regulations, mean that a privacy-intrusive measure must be both ‘necessary and proportionate in a democratic society’ and even then, the law must provide adequate safeguards. In practice this means that unless there is a real threat of a serious crime such as terrorism, one cannot introduce such a system in a place like Paceville where even there, most crimes are relatively minor or public order crimes with many, such as petty theft, occurring inside bars and clubs.

“The occasional brawl spilling out onto the street or even stabbing may justify the limited use of some CCTV in public spaces, but not the type which is equipped with facial recognition. It must also be linked to other measures taken by the police intended to secure timely response to a specific type of incident,” Cannataci said.

Under the EU’s Police Directive, which came into force on 6 May, any such CCTV tools can only be deployed by police or a responsible public authority authorised at law, with a law that guarantees safeguards before even starting any testing in a public space.

Indeed, Cannataci poured cold water over supporters of facial recognition CCTV being deployed in problem areas like Paceville’s entertainment area, or Marsa which hosts a large number of foreign communities and asylum seekers. “Even after satisfying the data protection commissioner and Parliament that such a system is necessary, other factors– who will own the system, legal safeguards, technical safeguards such as pixelation – have to be considered. All of them must be taken into account before gaining permissions to test the system, never mind deploying it.”

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