New wake-up call from the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) regarding facial recognition. If several weeks ago it forced Mercadona to pay a fine of 2.5 million euros for the improper use of this technology as a test in some of its establishments, the agency is now looking at the application of these artificial intelligence systems in the field of teaching. The AEPD issued on July 27 a warning resolution to the International University of La Rioja (UNIR) in which it concludes that the need to process personal data by these means is “not justified” and urges the center to “adopt the measures corrective measures aimed at preventing the planned treatment from leading to a possible breach of data protection legislation ”.
The AEPD resolution refers to a pilot test carried out by UNIR in September 2020 with a computer program that includes reading and collecting biometric data from students. The exam was done at the Higher School of Engineering and Technology and, as detailed to EL PAÍS a spokesperson for the center, with the total connivance of the students.
In essence, the system reads the biometric features of the people and draws a unique numerical pattern from each face, so that the individuals can be identified and, in this case, check that there is no third party doing the exam. The program in question, Smowl, requires permissions that include access to the computer’s camera, microphone, and desktop.
After the complaints of some students and the doubts raised by facial recognition both to the AEPD and to the Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities (CRUE), the UNIR decided to deactivate the biometric recognition application of the program, although it kept the rest. “The Smowl program takes control of the student’s desktop, in such a way that it blocks the rest of the applications that cannot be used during the exam,” explains Rubén González, vice-rector for Academic Planning and Teaching Staff at UNIR. “It also controls the audio, with which the teacher hears if there are abnormal noises, and the visual environment thanks to the use of a second camera, which makes it possible to see that there is no one behind the computer screen,” he adds.
Exams in the middle of a pandemic
Confinement and the pandemic situation forced universities to offer their students the option of taking exams from home in 2020. Most schools chose to do it by video call: the student connects their video camera so that their entire torso is visible and Follow the teacher’s instructions, who will ask you to show your ID and who will observe that you do not cheat.
Some centers, however, decided to opt for alternative methods. Facial recognition has already been used in universities around the world to control students when they take online exams, from the United States, where students make black lists of centers in which these technologies are used (they call them e-proctoring), to India. UNIR was one of the Spanish centers that considered the use of this technology.
The AEPD already warned a year ago in a report that it did not see recommended the use of this technology as a method of monitoring online exams. “Facial recognition techniques (…) involve the processing of biometric data in order to uniquely identify a natural person, for which they require reinforced guarantees,” he pointed out on purpose. The pandemic does not imply the suspension of fundamental data protection rights, he concludes. “A criterion of prudence must prevail that allows an analysis of its implications and, in any case, a rigorous study of the risks involved in these treatments and of the guarantees necessary to protect the right to protection of personal data,” added the analysis. from the agency, which was actually responding to inquiries from students and the CRUE about the appropriateness of this technology.
Some universities, such as the one in Granada, took good note and decided to discard the use of these tools. UNIR, for its part, launched its pilot test after the publication of the first AEPD report. Just as he anticipated Newtral, a group of students organized to sue the university, considering that its methods were too invasive. The association they set up raised more than 6,000 euros through crowdfunding to pay for a law firm that would allow them to resort to legal action if necessary.
The new resolution of the AEPD is a boost for their claims. “The need for treatment is not justified [de datos biométricos], since the online identification of students has been carried out on a regular basis by University centers by viewing the student without using facial recognition techniques. (…) The use of facial recognition techniques may be convenient for UNIR, but they are not necessary to achieve the intended purpose ”, specifies the letter. It can be read, in fact, as a warning to navigators: if any center chooses to use facial recognition and someone takes them to court, they will lose.
A controversial technology
Facial recognition applications raise important questions from the point of view of the right to privacy. So much so that the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) issued a joint statement at the end of June in which they request the total ban of these technologies when considering that pose an “extremely high risk” to privacy.
The draft European regulation on artificial intelligence, currently in the processing phase, contemplates a moratorium on these systems, considered “high risk” and therefore limited to exceptional situations (under the decision of each Member State).
One of the most controversial applications of this technology is its use by security forces for the surveillance of public spaces. In the United States it has been used for a long time, although the low effectiveness of these systems in recognizing the faces of black people has caused a wave of protests that has led several cities to renounce their use. In China, facial recognition is one of the pillars on which the powerful and opaque system of social control of the Asian Giant stands. Meanwhile, in Europe, the United Kingdom is the country that has most decisively opted for this surveillance tool, which is gradually making its way across the continent.
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