Biometric mass surveillance in public spaces

surveillance of people on a street indicating Covid tracing and transmission

Mass surveillance can pose a threat to our private spheres and should be strictly regulated, demands the ‘ReclaimYourFace’ campaign and therefore launched a European Citizens’ Initiative in February 2021.

Written by Sophia Stille // 15.10.2021

Technology of the past decades

In the past decades, data and biometric surveillance technologies have evolved immensely. In certain situations this can be helpful, just think about the Face-ID mechanism to unlock your phone. However, these technologies also have implications on the general public and each individual’s private sphere, especially regarding data security. In February 2021, a group of civil society organisations launched a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) demanding a strict regulation of the use of biometric mass surveillance technologies in public spaces in order to avoid misuse by public and private actors.

The ECI mechanism was created to make it possible for citizens to get involved in EU policy-making. For an initiative to be successful, the organisers need to collect 1 million signatures from citizens of at least 7 different EU countries. If this is the case, the European Commission needs to consider the claims and present an answer.

What is meant by biometric mass surveillance?

Biometric mass surveillance comprehends all technology that tracks and classifies us in public spaces, such as face recognition, surveillance cameras and fingerprint checks. The organisers of the initiative state how surveillance technologies can easily be misused without the person being surveilled noticing it. Therefore it is important to have clearly defined rules that regulate the use of these technologies. More specifically, the organisers demand from the European Commission a prohibition, in law and in practice, of indiscriminate or arbitrarily-targeted uses of biometrics which can lead to unlawful mass surveillance, as the latter can be used in disproportionate ways by private and public entities. The organisers and supporters of the initiative demand a law that makes surveillance technologies part of the general prohibitions in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Law Enforcement Directive (LED) to process personal data.

mass surveillance in public spaces

ReclaimYourFace Movement

The ECI started through the European movement ReclaimYourFace, which began as a dialogue on biometric data and freedoms in public spaces. Citizens from seven EU countries where the movement had already been active, came together to launch the ECI in order to achieve changes on the European level. The initiative is supported by actors such as ‘Amnesty International’, ‘Civil Liberties Union for Europe’ and the ‘European Digital Society’.

European Parliament calls for ban on biometric mass surveillance

On October 6th 2021, a first success for the supporters of the initiative was reached: The European Parliament voted to adopt a resolution calling for a ban of biometric mass surveillance. Even though the resolution is not legally binding, it gives an indication of the Parliament’s stance on the use of surveillance technologies and artificial intelligence in law enforcement technologies. The Greens/EFA group in the European parliament even launched an interactive game in order to raise awareness about the need to regulate biometric surveillance technologies. Try it out here.

How to support the ECI?

Even though the European Parliament has already indicated its support for the initiative, it takes the general public to render the ECI successful, and therefore oblige the European Commission to take action. You can find out more information on the organisers’ website or sign the ECI here. On our website, we will keep you updated on news regarding this and other initiatives, so visit us from time to time!


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