Riot police detain a man during clashes in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, March 11, 2021.

Greek police roll out new ‘smart’ devices that recognize faces and fingerprints

Greek authorities say the technology will make police checks more efficient, but critics are sounding the alarm about potential abuses. 

The World

Riot police detain a man during clashes in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, March 11, 2021. 

Giannis Papanikos/AP

At a time when the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement is under increased scrutiny, Greece is forging ahead with a plan to equip some police officers with portable devices capable of facial recognition and fingerprint identification.

Under a Smart Policing plan announced in 2017, Greece will equip roughly 1,000 police officers with smartphone-like devices by summer 2021. Up to 10,000 officers could eventually get them. 

The devices will be connected to national and European databases, according to the Hellenic Police, and officers who carry them on patrols will be able to use them to identify people by scanning their faces and fingerprints.

Related: Greece ‘finally’ has its #MeToo moment 

One of the program’s goals is to identify “third-country nationals who have violated the legal length of stay in the country,” according to a Hellenic Police document detailing the project.

Hellenic Police said in a statement to The World that the program will improve efficiency and officer safety as well as reduce hassle for civilians.

But critics say the project erodes privacy protections. And some warn against expanding police surveillance powers at a time when activists allege police brutality in Greece is on the rise.

“It’s really scary,” said Ali, an undocumented Yemeni artist living in Athens, of the project. His real name isn't being used because he fears for his safety.

Ali worries about the accuracy of the technology. Studies show facial recognition systems often misidentify people of color and can lead to wrongful arrests and convictions.

And he’s concerned about an increased crackdown on a population that he says is already over-surveilled and over-policed. Greek authorities expect the daily average of police stops to increase under the Smart Policing program, according to police documents.

“It’s difficult. You feel like … someone is [always] watching you, coming after you. And it’s not a good feeling.”

Ali, migrant, Greece

“It’s difficult,” Ali said about life as a migrant in Greece. “You feel like … someone is [always] watching you, coming after you. And it’s not a good feeling.”

Related: In Greece, a clergyman’s death reignites communion spoon debate

Eleftherios Chelioudakis, co-founder of Homo Digitales, a digital rights advocacy organization based in Athens, is also concerned that the program is partly aimed at migrants in the country.

“They are aiming at marginalized groups, and they are aiming at third-country nationals because these … are the people that have a lower voice in [society],” Chelioudakis said.

And he said efficiency is not a good enough reason to deploy what he considers dangerous technology. He likened it to using a bazooka to kill a fly.

“Yes, maybe it’s efficient, but is it necessary?” Chelioudakis said.

“I am not saying that we should never use new technology in policing activities or law enforcement, in general,” he said. “What I’m saying is that it’s very important to invest in technologies that are human rights-oriented and that there are legal grounds to use such technologies.”

Chelioudakis' organization is also questioning the legality of the program under European laws on biometric data processing.

“It is not a tactic of our service to comment on the statements of … nongovernmental organizations.”

Hellenic Police spokesperson in a statement to The World

“It is not a tactic of our service to comment on the statements of … nongovernmental organizations,” a Hellenic Police spokesperson wrote in a statement to The World.

Related: This Afghan ‘computer nerd’ learned to code in a Greek program for refugees. He says it was 'life-changing.'

But they noted that biometric data processed during police stops as part of the program will not be retained, and “will be used exclusively for their instantaneous comparison with the existing systems of the Greek Police and will be discarded upon completion of the identification process.”

Last year, Homo Digitales filed a request to the Greek Data Protection Authority (GDPA), which said it launched an inquiry into the police project.

The GDPA did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the investigation.

The European Data Protection Authority said in a statement to The World that it’s “currently preparing guidelines on the use of facial recognition technology in the area of law enforcement” and that the GPDA is “participat[ing] in its internal discussions on this topic.”

Privacy and human rights groups say the project in Greece is part of a worrying trend.

“You know the motto, ‘Move fast and break things?’ I've been seeing this more and more in several countries,” said Riccardo Coluccini, a researcher with the Italian nongovernmental organization, Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights.

Related: An Afghan asylum-seeker lost his son in tragic boat journey to Greece. Now, he faces prison time.

Coluccini said he’s noticing an uptick in what he described as a “Silicon Valley attitude” — that is, governments rushing to deploy new technologies without considering the human rights and legal implications.

He pointed to a project in Como, Italy, as an example. There, authorities set out to install facial recognition cameras around a park where homeless migrants would congregate and sleep. The plan was dropped after news reports made the project public and the Italian Data Protection Authority intervened and deemed it illegal.

But other projects are moving forward.

“We’re seeing a really worrying trend of law enforcement across the [European Union] untransparently taking up facial recognition.”

Ella Jakubowska, European Digital Rights (EDRi)

“We’re seeing a really worrying trend of law enforcement across the [European Union] untransparently taking up facial recognition,” said Ella Jakubowska with the advocacy group European Digital Rights (EDRi).

The group claims that more than half of EU countries are “using facial recognition and similar tools in ways that conflict with their own human rights rules.”

Jakubowska criticized EU authorities for financially and otherwise backing some of these projects. For example, approximately 75% of the 4-million-euro Smart Policing project in Greece is being covered by the European Commission's Internal Security Fund (ISF). 

“It's an incredibly worrying picture because the EU is investing vast sums of money in pilot projects and other research and innovation, they call it, that very clearly contradicts their own human rights rules,” Jakubowska said.

EDRi and several affiliated organizations recently launched a petition to ban “biometric mass surveillance” and to strictly regulate the use of biometric technologies in Europe. Amnesty International has similarly called for a global ban on facial recognition systems.

In the US, several major cities, including Boston and San Francisco, have banned or restricted law enforcement from using facial recognition technology and several tech companies including Microsoft, IBM and Amazon have said they will restrict sales of facial recognition technology to law enforcement until there is a federal law regulating its use.