Since 2019, Serbian organizations have been warning against mass surveillance.
This article was written by Ana Toskić Cvetinović, Executive Director of the civil society organization Partners for Democratic Change Serbia, a member of the Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda (ICEDA) network. civic engagement in the digital agenda]. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission.
In December 2022, the Serbian Interior Minister published a draft Law on Internal Affairs. It was the second time in 16 months that the Minister submitted this law which could significantly increase the authority of the police, strengthening the influence of politics on the police and their interventions, as well as the introduction of a legal basis for biometric mass surveillance in Serbia.
It was also the second time in 16 months that the bill was withdrawn from the legislative process. However, contrary to what happened in September 2021, on the initiative of President Aleksandar Vucic who justified that it was not the right moment in the political agenda (at that time, Serbia was preparing for another round of national elections), this time it was Prime Minister Ana Brnabic who initiated the withdrawal. She promised that the work undertaken on this law would continue within the framework of a listening and open consultation process with all the political leaders concerned.
Internal Affairs Law
The two attempts to pass the Internal Affairs Law drew strong reactions from Serbs and international civil society organizations, most of whom criticized the provisions foreshadowing mass biometric surveillance. But their opposition dates back to 2019, when the erstwhile interior minister announced that the city of Belgrade would be subject to biometric surveillance with cameras linked to facial recognition software, as well as a recognition system automatic car license plates.
Serbia acquired this insufficiently tested surveillance system from the Chinese company Huawei, thanks to a contract kept secret, without prior legal basis for its use, without identifying the necessary and proportional use of this system, but also without undertaking an impact study of such intrusive technologies in order to know the effects on the rights of citizens. Faced with questions from public opinion, the government’s response has always been the same: the cameras have been installed, but the facial recognition software has not been purchased and they use the ordinary available video surveillance technology (CCTV ).
Four years later, it is strange that the Minister of the Interior and the Serbian government have not abandoned the establishment of such an intrusive surveillance system of citizens. In January, the meeting was organized by Prime Minister Brnabic, bringing together representatives of civil society and the ministries concerned, to discuss the provisions which were the subject of criticism. Although the precise course of the legislative process has not yet been established, it is certain that (probably at an opportune political moment) a new bill will be presented, attempting to secure a legal basis for what will have been the will of the authorities for years.
But what makes this system so attractive to the Serbian authorities that they have been trying for more than three years to make it operational, and this without adopting from the outset a regulation that would legalize the installation and use cameras capable of automating facial recognition?
Truth be told, governments around the world are increasingly using biometric surveillance, initially to prevent certain crimes and prosecute their perpetrators. However, a case study showed that although this system can help curb certain crimes, it is minor crimes that are the most affected. With regard to organized crime, for example, cameras in public spaces are not a deterrent. In Serbia, a comparative analysis did not demonstrate the crime situation, how (un)protected our society is and why biometric surveillance is the only means that could contribute to our security.
This last point is particularly significant if we refer to the comparative study which showed many negative effects of biometric surveillance. The system itself implies a permanent limitation of respect for the privacy of citizens, but the problems go beyond that. Situations of misidentification and system errors have led to wrongful charges. The algorithm has most commonly identified members of minorities as suspects while authorities in some countries use this system to strike a deal with those who do not share their political views. Finally, research has shown that the implementation of these technologies in the public space has frightening consequences. Knowing that they are constantly being watched, citizens do not feel free to discuss, meet, participate in political rallies or otherwise express their views, opinions and concerns.
All of this is the subject of intense ongoing debates within the European Union, which is proposing an Artificial Intelligence Regulation (AI Act), a regulation that should oversee the development and deployment of artificial intelligence. in the member states. It is not yet known what the final version of the Regulation will look like, but civil society, human rights groups and most members of the European Parliament have called for a ban on biometric mass surveillance.
In view of all this, we should not tolerate hasty decisions allowing the introduction of biometric surveillance in Serbia. Instead of hasty, non-transparent solutions, we need reasoned debates about whether we need such a system, what purpose we want it to serve, and ultimately whether we as a community are willing to give up permanently part of our freedom.
This article is originally published on fr.globalvoices.org