A huge international facial recognition system is coming soon

The EU playing a Bond villain.

words by: Sahar Khraibani
May 15, 2022

The European Union is constructing a massive international facial recognition system. Lawmakers are advancing plans that would allow EU police agencies to integrate their photo databases, which contain millions of images of people’s faces.


Over the last 15 years, European police forces have been able to share fingerprints, DNA data, and details of vehicle owners with each other in their search for criminals. Officials in France can ask Spanish authorities to check fingerprints against their database if they suspect someone they’re looking for is in Spain and vice versa.


Now, European legislators are planning to incorporate millions of images of people’s faces in this system, allowing for the deployment of facial recognition on a massive scale. The extension of facial recognition across Europe is part of a larger strategy to “modernize” policing across Europe, and it is covered by the Prüm II data-sharing proposals.


The details were first revealed in December, but as the full impact of the measures has become clear, European data regulators have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks.


Ella Jakubowska, a policy adviser at the civil liberties organization European Digital Rights, shares: “What you are creating is the most extensive biometric surveillance infrastructure that I think we will ever have seen in the world.” Documents obtained by EDRi under freedom of information legislation show how countries lobbied for the inclusion of face recognition in the international policing accord.


In 2005, 7 European countries—Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Austria—signed the first version of Prüm, which permits governments to share data to combat international crime. Prüm has had a mixed response from the European Union’s 27 countries since its inception.


Prüm II intends to vastly increase the amount of data that may be transmitted, possibly including images and information from driver’s licenses. The Proposals for the European Commission also stated that police will have more “automatic” access to shared data. This implies that police across Europe will be able to work more closely together, and Europol, the European law enforcement organization, will have a “stronger role.”


One of the most significant proposed changes in Prüm II is the incorporation of facial photographs and the ability to run facial recognition algorithms against them. In recent years, as police forces have progressively implemented facial recognition technology, there has been a strong backlash, claiming that it has misdiagnosed people and put lives at risk.


Several communities in the United States have gone so far as to prohibit police officers from utilizing the technology. As part of its AI Act, the EU is considering a restriction on police use of facial recognition in public spaces.


Prüm II, on the other hand, enables the application of retrospective facial recognition. This means that cops can compare still photographs from CCTV cameras, social media photos, or photos on a victim’s phone to mug shots stored in a police database. Live facial recognition systems, which are frequently attached to cameras in public settings and have received the greatest criticism, are not the same as this technology.


The European proposals would allow a country to compare a photo to databases from other countries to see if there are any matches, effectively creating one of the world’s largest facial recognition systems.


According to the official proposal, photos of people’s faces should not be pooled in one massive central database, but police forces will be linked through a “central router.” This router will only operate as a message broker between states, and will not keep any data.


Prüm II is easier to understand thanks to this decentralized approach: Under the current system, cops who want to compare fingerprints must link with other police forces individually. Countries will only require one connection to the central router under the new system, making it easier to manage.


This is definitely a game-changer when it comes to facial recognition systems and living under surveillance across state and country demarcations.


In related news, Apple is working on a digital driver’s license.


Photo via Getty Images