This article was published on February 17, 2020

Automated facial recognition breaches GDPR, says EU digital chief

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager believes facial recognition in the EU requires consent

Automated facial recognition breaches GDPR, says EU digital chief Image by: Europäische Kommission Vertretung Deutschland

The EU’s digital and competition chief has said that automated facial recognition breaches GDPR, as the technology fails to meet the regulation’s requirement for consent.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s executive vice president for digital affairs, told reporters that “as it stands right now, GDPR would say ‘don’t use it’, because you cannot get consent,” EURACTIV revealed today.

GDPR classes information on a person’s facial features as biometric data, which is labeled as “sensitive personal data.” The use of such data is highly restricted, and typically requires consent from the subject — unless the processing meets a range of exceptional circumstances.

These exemptions include it being necessary for public security. This has led the UK’s data regulator to allow police to use facial recognition CCTV, as it met “the threshold of strict necessity for law enforcement purposes.”

[Read: Here’s how face recognition tech can be GDPR compliant]

Vestager told reporters that the Commission will further investigate automated facial recognition before introducing legislation, allowing member states to make their own domestic decisions in the meantime.

“So what we will say in the paper in a very lawyered up language is, let’s pause and figure out if there are any [situations], and if any, under what circumstances facial recognition remotely should be authorized”, she said.

Her comments reflect the EU’s recent cancellation of plans to introduce a five-year moratorium on the technology.

EU seeks to differentiate itself

Vestager has become one of the most high-profile EU politicians through her work as the bloc’s competition commissioner, where she slappedSilicon Valley giants with multiple billion-dollar fines, leading the New York Times to dub her “the most powerful regulator of big tech on the planet.”

In December 2019, she added the role of “Commissioner for Europe fit for the Digital Age” to her antitrust portfolio.

Vestager’s enhanced powers have made her a key player in the EU’s ambitions to create tech companies that can compete globally by emphasizing the bloc’s unique strengths.

“China has the data, the US has the money, and we have the purpose”, she said, adding that the EU should retain its “willingness to protect the fundamental values” that had “made us one of the most attractive places to live on the planet ever.”

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