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. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission.
“The modern totalitarian state relies on secrecy for the regime, but high surveillance and disclosure for all other groups. The democratic society relies on publicity as a control over government, and on privacy as a shield for group and individual life.” – Alan Westin, 1967
In December 2022, the Serbian ministry of internal affairs published the draft of a Law on Internal Affairs. This was the second time in 16 months that the Ministry proposed this law that would significantly increase the authority of police officers, strengthen the political influence on police and its operations, and introduce the legal basis for mass biometric surveillance in Serbia.
This was also the second time in 16 months that the draft law was withdrawn from the legislative process. However, unlike in September 2021, when this was done by President Aleksandar Vucic, who explained that the political momentum for this law was not the right one (at that time, Serbia was preparing for another round of national elections), this time it was the Prime Minister Ana Brnabic who initiated the withdrawal. She promised that the work on the law will continue in a comprehensive and inclusive consultation process of all the relevant stakeholders.
Both attempts to adopt the Law on Internal Affairs were followed by strong reactions from Serbian and international civil society organizations that mostly commented on provisions for mass biometric surveillance. But their struggle started back in 2019, when the then minister of internal affairs, announced that the city of Belgrade would be covered by biometric surveillance cameras connected to facial recognition software, as well as the system for automatic recognition of car plates. Serbia acquired this insufficiently-tested surveillance system from the Chinese company Huawei, through a secret contract, without a previously established legal basis for its use, without determining the necessity and proportionality of the use of this system, but also without conducting an assessment of the impact that the use of such intrusive technologies would have on the rights of citizens. To public inquiries, the government’s response has since been the same: cameras have been installed, but facial recognition software has not been acquired, and they use the available technology as ordinary video surveillance (CCTV).
Four years later, it is obvious that the ministry of internal affairs and the Serbian government have not given up on the implementation of such an invasive citizen surveillance system. In January, the meeting was organized by Prime Minister Brnabic, gathering representatives of civil society and the relevant ministries, to discuss the provisions that were criticized. Even though the exact timeline for the legislative process has not yet been set, it is certain that (probably at a politically convenient time) a new draft law will appear, attempting to provide a legal basis for what has been the idea of our authorities for years.
But what is it that makes this system so attractive that Serbian authorities have been trying for more than three years to make it operational, initially even without adopting a regulation that would legalize the installation and use of cameras capable of automatic facial recognition?
Truth be told, governments throughout the world are increasingly using biometric surveillance, primarily in order to prevent certain crimes and prosecute their perpetrators. However, comparative experience has shown that, although this system can help suppress certain crimes, petty crimes are those that are primarily affected. For organized crime, for example, cameras in public spaces are not a deterrent. As for Serbia, a comprehensive analysis has not been offered to show the state of crime in Serbia, how (un)safe our society is, and why biometric surveillance is the very tool that should contribute to our safety.
The latter is particularly significant in view of the fact that comparative experience has shown a number of negative effects of biometric surveillance. The system itself implies a permanent restriction of citizens’ right to privacy, but the problems are much greater than that. Cases of misidentification and system errors have led to wrongful convictions. The algorithm has more frequently recognized members of minority groups as suspicious, while authorities in some countries use this system to deal with those who don’t share their political views. Finally, research has shown that the implementation of these technologies in public spaces has a chilling effect. Knowing they are constantly under surveillance, citizens do not feel free to communicate, meet, participate in political gatherings, or otherwise express their views, opinions and beliefs.
All this is currently the topic of an intensive debate within the European Union, which is currently drafting the Act on Artificial Intelligence (AI), a regulation that should govern the development and implementation of AI in the member states. It is still uncertain what the final version of the Act will look like, but civil society, human rights protection groups and most European Parliament members have called for a ban on mass biometric surveillance.
In view of all this, we must not allow hasty decisions on the introduction of biometric surveillance to be made in Serbia. Instead of hasty, non-transparent and rash solutions, we need a meaningful debate about whether we need such a system, what we want it to achieve and, finally, whether we, as a community, are prepared to permanently give up part of our freedom.