Two years after a mass surveillance system with thousands of facial recognition security cameras was introduced to the streets of Serbian capital Belgrade, concern continues to grow about the impact of the technology.
The Huawei-based surveillance system sparked controversy when it was initially introduced in 2019. And now human and digital rights organizations in the country are pushing back and warning about the risks that facial recognition software can bring.
During the summer of 2020, the SHARE Foundation, a Belgrade-based digital rights organization that advocates for data privacy and digital security, launched a website called "Thousands of cameras", as a space where Serbian citizens could share their concerns over the mass surveillance project. "The total loss of anonymity represents a certain loss of our freedom – the awareness that we are under constant surveillance drastically changes our decisions," it warns.
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People responded to the initiative and started submitting photos and snaps of the cameras that have already been installed and pinpointing their exact locations.
"Such infrastructure would enable mass surveillance of all citizens of Belgrade, having in mind that police already confirmed that they would use ID card databases for identification purposes. This is an enormous power that anyone who has access to this system would gain, and it seems that there are not enough sufficient safeguards to prevent the misuse of such power," Danilo Krivokapic, director of the SHARE Foundation, told ZDNet.
During last year, there were several pivotal moments that have highlighted concerns about the introduction of such systems.
In May 2020, there were mass rallies in Belgrade in support of the Serbian government, organized by the ruling party in Belgrade, as the country was getting ready to for parliamentary elections in June.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic later gave a statement in which he stated the exact number of people that were present at the rally – 5,790 supporters of the ruling party. This prompted a debate in Serbian as to whether the surveillance system was actually being deployed to monitor and count the number of the people in rallies and protests.
The second event came in July 2020, shortly after the elections. The government, which convincingly won the elections, wanted to add stricter measures against the COVID-19 epidemic in the country and to reintroduce lockdowns.
Vucic faced protests where the police had to use force in order to disperse the protesters. After this happened, human rights organization Amnesty International warned about "credible reports" of police use of facial recognition cameras in Belgrade to identify protestors.
"Amnesty International opposes use of facial recognition technology for mass surveillance, such as at protests and demonstrations. The new technology is still largely unregulated and tends to disproportionately target specific groups of people, it can have a chilling effect on the right to protest," the organization noted in its report.
According to Krivokapic, the initiative that the SHARE Foundation introduced is a part of opposition to the installation and the use of biometric surveillance not only in Serbia, but across Europe as well, as a part of the ReclaimYourFace movement.
"It's clear that deploying biometric mass surveillance on the streets of Belgrade would be unlawful and against the rights to privacy, since it can't be considered as necessary and proportionate in a democratic society, which is a requirement proposed by both national and international legal framework in this field." Krivokapic points out.
While Serbian authorities have usually kept quiet about the scope of the project, an official document from the Serbian Ministry of Interior showed that the total number of cameras used for the surveillance system is up to 8,100. In addition to the 2,500 cameras on the traffic poles, the police also bought 3,500 mobile cameras, 600 cameras for the police vehicles and 1,500 body cameras, as a part of the police uniforms.
Meanwhile, tech companies are rolling out various camera projects elsewhere across Eastern Europe as well – one of them being currently implemented in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities are planning to install more than 3,000 cameras on the main roads and highways in Kyiv.
While an analytical facial recognition system has been in place in Kyiv since 2019, data privacy activists have warned about the overall lack of legal clarity when it comes to this type of technology.
And much has been discussed about the shortcomings of facial recognition elsewhere across Europe, too. As ZDNet reported earlier, the Council of Europe recently published new guidelines that should be followed by governments and private companies that are considering the deployment of facial recognition technologies. Some of those guidelines include strict parameters and criteria that law enforcement agencies should adhere to when they find it justifiable to use facial recognition tools.
"Facial recognition data is, obviously, tied to users' immutable physical characteristics which some people find intrusive, and there is an additional burden of ensuring compliance with data protection legislation such as GDPR," Michal Kratochvil, CEO of 2N Telekomunikace, a Czechia-based manufacturer of IP intercom and access-system technology, told ZDNet.
And while the debate about the use of facial recognition is ongoing, with some governments and companies opting against it and others embracing it, citizens themselves, as illustrated in the case with Serbia, could also have the final say on how this and similar technologies will be used in the future.