“Safe Society” project and legislation
The implementation of modern technologies in order to fight crime is important, but it is equally important to comply the method with legislation. The last 6 months have been marked by a public discussion about the legitimacy, but also the legality of the use of the video surveillance system that was recently set up in Belgrade.
According to the document of the Ministry of the Interior “Assessment of the impact of processing on the personal data protection using modern video surveillance technologies within the project” Safe Society “in Belgrade” there are as many as 8,100 cameras (2,500 in public places, 3,500 mobile police cameras, 1,500 cameras in uniforms of police officers and another 600 located on police cars). This document explicitly states that by the end of the project, the Ministry of the Interior will expand the functionality of video analytics by introducing automatic face detection from continuous video material. The cameras will be connected to detection software that will be able to automatically recognize and extract, in the form of a photo and a short video, the image of anyone passing through the camera surveillance zone. The Ministry of the Interior states that the identification, ie recognition of the recorded persons will be performed only in certain situations and in accordance with the purposes provided by this document. However, it is not known which software will be used, nor the specification of the purchased equipment, nor how much it was all paid for. The Ministry of the Interior refused to provide information on public procurement for the mentioned video surveillance system.
Referring to the Law on Personal Data Protection, the Ministry of the Interior divided data processing within this system into general and special regime.
The special regime refers to the processing of data related to the prevention and detection of criminal offenses and misdemeanours. In these cases, the Ministry of the Interior plans to use face recognition software to identify faces:
- for which there are grounds for suspicion that they have committed a criminal offense or misdemeanor;
- for which there is a well founded suspicion that they have committed a criminal offense or misdemeanor;
- which have been damaged by a criminal offense or misdemeanour;
- in connection with a criminal offense, such as witnesses, persons who can provide information, related persons.
Within the special regime, it is problematic that it also includes processing related to the prevention and detection of misdemeanours, although in accordance with the Law on Personal Data Protection, this regime refers exclusively to the prevention and detection of criminal offenses.
General regime applies to all other cases, and the Ministry of the Interior plans to use face recognition software to identify persons whose life or health is endangered or if it is necessary to protect the health of others (eg prevent the spread of infection) and to use this system to:
- making insight into the state of traffic;
- informing the public about events of importance for life in the city;
- providing materials used in the training of police officers;
- providing material used for further development and improvement of video surveillance systems and statistical needs.
Such broadly defined purposes for the use of mass biometric surveillance, give the Ministry of the Interior the opportunity to use the system arbitrarily in a variety of situations.
At the end of May, the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection evaluated the Impact Assessment document as non-compliant with the law for the second time. The main disadvantage of this project, in the opinion of the Commissioner, is that there is still no legal basis for its implementation. The police are already conducting video surveillance, which is not disputable from the point of view of the law, but the problem is in the system of face recognition and processing of biometric data. According to him, the Government plans to propose a new Law on Video Surveillance, which would regulate the disputed area. This can be achieved by amending the existing regulations, but it is important to emphasize that the system cannot be applied before the adoption of regulations.
In addition to the lack of a law that would regulate this area, the Commissioner pointed out as problematic that the Ministry of the Interior did not conduct an assessment of the necessity and proportionality of processing in relation to the purpose of processing, which is a mandatory part of the Impact Assessment.
The Ministry, however, did correct one shortcoming that the Commissioner noticed in his opinion – at the end of August, a new Rulebook on the manner of recording in a public place and the manner of announcing the intention to record was adopted (“Official Gazette of RS”, No. 27/2020 and 101 / 2020 – hereinafter: the Rulebook).
According to this Rulebook, the Ministry of the Interior will have to mark all cameras with a sign, but also to have a notification about the cameras on the official website of the ministry. The Rulebook also stipulates that a police officer, in cases when it is necessary due to the danger of endangering life and health, will be able to perform the recording independently. The Rulebook prescribes the obligation of the Ministry of the Interior to mark all smart cameras that are installed in Belgrade, and which until now only citizens marked with the stickers of the initiative hiljade.kamera.rs.
The appearance of the sign is prescribed in a way that it contains a picture of a camera, the inscription “Ministry of Interior” and the official website of the Ministry of the Interior, while the notice on the website of the Ministry of the Interior should contain additional information about the operator and the information regarding the claiming of rights of persons in connection with the recording”.
It is interesting that the Rulebook stipulates that in cases when “urgent action is required due to the danger to endangering the life and health of people and property or to prevent the commission of misdemeanours and criminal offenses, a police officer conducts a recording if he estimates that he can do it safely without endangering his own and others’ safety and respecting the human rights and freedoms of citizens.” In that case, the police officer is obliged to orally announce the intention to record and provide proof of that – an audio-video recording or an official note.
When the provisions of the Law on Personal Data Protection and the principle of transparency of data processing are taken into account, it is very debatable whether citizens are adequately informed about the processing of their data and the rights they have in that regard. The official marking of police cameras is an important step towards transparency, but huge differences in the locations of camera locations and the number of cameras are still noticeable when comparing the updated the Ministry of Interior’s list and the civilian map.
And although he praises the adoption of the Rulebook, the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection is explicit – the Rulebook is not a substitute for the law. He emphasizes that according to the law, the Ministry is not obliged to take into account the suggestions of the Commissioner on the Impact Assessment, but he also adds that good practice requires something like that. Otherwise, the administrative body would find itself in the situation that, once it starts processing, it will be under the inspection supervision of the Commissioner, and face misdemeanour penalties or an order to suspend data processing.
This is exactly what was stated in the report of the Commissioner, after the supervision procedure was conducted in the Police Administration of Belgrade last year.
The Ministry of the Interior emphasizes that, as before, it will use the video surveillance system exclusively in accordance with the law, emphasizing that it still does not use the so-called facial recognition system and that such information, which has appeared in public several times, is incorrect.
Certainly, the processing of biometric data, which has been established in some of the most developed democratic countries, can give results when discovering the perpetrators of the most serious crimes. However, time will tell what the final result will be and whether Serbian society will be a “safe society”, or whether we are witnessing unprecedented control of movement and violations of basic human rights.