More than 175 civil rights groups, activists and researchers from across the world are calling for a global ban on facial recognition and remote biometric systems. An open letter, published today highlights human rights abuses enabled by the use of surveillance technology in countries such as China, Russia, Myanmar, Argentina, Brazil and the United States. 

The document, signed by groups and individuals including Amnesty International and the Internet Freedom Foundation, demands a halt in all public investment in uses of technologies enabling mass surveillance and advocates for their prohibition in all public spaces.

The coalition was convened by the digital rights group Access Now, and the letter was drafted by European Digital Rights, Human Rights Watch, Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor and a number of other organizations. Signatories from Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America include Big Brother Watch and Privacy International.

Biometric technologies have the capacity to identify and profile both individuals and populations around the world. Coda Story has previously reported on the use of facial recognition in Hyderabad, India and Moscow, and fingerprint and iris scans in Kenya.

The letter cites the threat of biometrics systems to human rights and civil liberties. It also warns of untrained staff at private facial recognition providers compiling databases of “suspicious” individuals, shared by private companies, which are not subject to official oversight, and the discrimination such practices could lead to.

“The use of these technologies to surveil people in city parks, schools, libraries, workplaces, transport hubs, sports stadiums, housing developments, and even in online spaces such as social media platforms, constitutes an existential threat to our human rights and civil liberties and must be stopped,” says the letter.

Daniel Leufer, a Brussels based Europe policy analyst at Access Now, told me that the window for regulating such technologies has passed. “If we have cameras capable of running live facial recognition or live gait or voice analysis to detect aggressive behavior littered throughout public spaces, our belief is that there is no way to safely and adequately regulate that and keep it in check,” he said. 

The years-long debate on the use of surveillance tools has included appeals for a moratorium on its use in the U.S. and recommendations for an outright ban by the EU privacy watchdog the European Data Protection Supervisor. In 2019, David Kaye, the then U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, published a report calling for an immediate pause on the use and sale of surveillance tools and software. Kaye, a clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, recommended that countries exporting surveillance technology like malware should sign up to the Wassenaar Arrangement, formally established in 1996 to promote transparency and greater responsibility in sales of conventional weapons.

Leufer added that pausing the use of biometric  would be inadequate. “We can’t have a situation where these technologies are in place in public spaces, they could be on, they could be off, that already creates a chilling effect,” he said.