Facial recognition rolled back in Malta

After questions about privacy and human rights were raised, Malta's government resigned plans to impement Chinese facial recognition surveillance.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Malta
Facial recognition rolled back in Malta - NewsMavens
Surveillence cameras, PixaBay

Why this story matters:

In a photo from last year, representatives of the Maltese government and the Chinese tech giant Huawei are seen signing an agreement for the €1.5 million investment in the Safe City project.

The project was meant to link facial recognition technology with databases to identify misbehaving individuals, first and foremost in the popular entertainment area where most of Malta's crime happens.

Huawei deploys this technology in various cities in China and seeks to enter the EU market.

However, the UN High Commission for Human Rights special rapporteur on privacy, Prof. Joseph Cannataci, has warned Maltese authorities against it, and there were numerous local voices against the daily surveillance of people in public spaces. In the climate of limited transparency, many fear that surveillance will enable data breaches.

The news about deploying this system in Marsa, a town which houses the open center for asylum seekers and has been subject to alleged racial profiling by police officers, raised additional fears of using surveillance against the most vulnerable part of the population.

Last year, numerous police officers were sent to check the ID documents of people of color in Marsa. Meanwhile, in the same town, suspects of the murder of blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia were allegedly preparing for their crime undetected.

In light of these concerns, Joseph Cuschieri, Safe City director, announced the project would not be deployed.

Details from the story:

  • Safe City Malta is a government-owned company. Last year it signed an agreement with Huawei to install face recognition technologies, and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat confirmed its deployment during Budget speech 2019.
  • Chinese contractors provide similar technologies to governments in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
  • Representative of Safe City Malta said that the system to be actually put in place will be "advanced video surveillance". It will allow law enforcement to monitor problem areas in real time.
  • Deploying face recognition requires justifying it on the basis of a clear security risk. "Such deployment would require the scrutiny and clearance of privacy controllers at both national and EU level,” the Safe City representative said. 

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