Civil Society Forum of the Western Balkans
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OP-EDS

A thousand eyes over Belgrade: mass biometric surveillance as the ultimate privacy intrusion

03.11.2020

Photo by: Kaspersky daily

In early 2019, citizens of Serbia’s capital Belgrade learned from the media that the streets of their city will be covered with a thousand smart cameras supplied by Huawei, the Chinese IT giant with a strong presence in the country. The “Safe Society” project, announced by the then Serbian Minister of Interior Nebojša Stefanović and Police Director Vladimir Rebić, was meant to update the current system of video surveillance in the Serbian capital with advanced features such as facial and vehicle license plate recognition.

However, the public was kept in the dark about such a project, one that would forever change the very fabric of a city and, eventually, the entire society. There was no public debate whatsoever on whether Belgrade needed this mass biometric surveillance system and no explanation of the reasons for such a drastic intrusion into citizens’ privacy.

Serbia, being a society with low privacy awareness, a lack of implementation of data protection standards, and a history of video surveillance abuse, is even more vulnerable to privacy-infringing technologies such as facial recognition. Current trends of democratic backsliding are also very problematic. This year, Freedom House marked Serbia as a Transitional/Hybrid regime for the first time since 2003.

Other guaranteed human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression, the right to protest and peaceful gathering are also endangered since they are inextricably linked with privacy. For example, if a government body has a database of biometric data (e.g. faces, behavioural patterns such as walking, etc.) of all citizens who attended an anti-government protest, this could immensely affect their work, family, social contacts and other aspects of everyday life. We are witnessing dangerous times in which public spaces, places of the utmost importance for citizen gatherings, democracy and the fight against oppression, are being turned into mass surveillance zones. In addition, facial recognition also discriminates against minorities and other disadvantaged communities, therefore making them more vulnerable.

In order to counter this negative turn of events, SHARE Foundation, a Serbian non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of digital rights and freedoms and promotion of an open and decentralized internet, launched a citizen-led initiative entitled “Thousands of Cameras” (“Hiljade kamera”), which is challenging this intrusive video surveillance system through research, advocacy and by mapping the cameras.

“Thousands of Cameras” activists and citizens have mapped hundreds of locations in Belgrade in which the cameras were installed, far exceeding the numbers published by the police. Also, with the help of citizens, photos showing the cameras in different parts of Belgrade are posted on Twitter, as new locations constantly emerge throughout the city, even in residential areas.

Biometric surveillance through facial recognition might be the key step towards automated social control over our behaviour in public places. There is no hard proof that surveillance cameras actually prevent serious crimes, while there is a lot to be lost when it comes to the citizens’ private lives. In order to preserve our human rights and dignity, the use of facial recognition technology for surveillance of public spaces must be banned due to high risks and uncertain effects. Otherwise, one day we might wake up in a techno-dystopian society, with the majority of us not realizing it at all.

Danilo Krivokapić

Danilo Krivokapić is director of SHARE Foundation, Belgrade based NGO established in 2012 with the goal to fight for the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights, in the areas of privacy, free speech, government transparency and efficiency, surveillance and human rights. He is  a lawyer with expertise in the field of personal data protection & information security.