Misdemeanour charges for attending protests: did the police use biometric surveillance?

If the police used biometric surveillance to identify the protesters, then they violated the law.

For weeks now, activists who have participated in protests and roadblocks in cities across Serbia have been receiving letters with misdemeanour charges, even though the police hadn’t asked for their ID at the protests. Citizens are wondering if the police took photos of them and how did the law enforcement determine that it was in fact them protesting?

Similar letters have been received in cities all across Serbia. The first charges have been received after the first roadblocks, three weeks ago. The activists who received them claim that the letters contain all basic personal data, although no one asked for their ID at the protests.

The most common fines, amounting to roughly 40€, are issued are based on charges for violating the Law on Traffic Safety and “obstructing traffic by moving and staying on the driveway”. 

Many activists, organizations and lawyers are wondering what data has the Ministry of the Interior based the charges on if there were, in fact, no uniformed officers present at the protests?

As the former Commissioner for Personal Data Protection, Rodoljub Šabić, explains in his text published in Peščanik: “Our citizens, a large number of whom have received misdemeanour police charges, face several alternatives: to pay half the amount of the fine determined by the misdemeanour order within 8 days; to pay the full amount after the expiration of that period; to risk forced execution of the fine and additional legal costs should they refuse to pay; to refuse to pay, request a court decision on the misdemeanour charges within 8 days – and to be released from paying if the court so decides, but forced to pay the fine and cover the costs of the court proceedings if their case fails in court”.

Whether you have chosen to avoid further inconveniences and pay 50% of the stated amount, or contacted one of a number of organizations that offer free legal assistance, a dilemma remains – who obtained your personal data, how was it obtained, and what is the basis for the charges.

Misdemeanor reports are mostly written on the basis of citizens’ photos (or photos of vehicles, in case of traffic violations), obtained from video surveillance. But even when such photos are legally obtained, as Šabić explains, they cannot in themselves, without other evidence and expertise, be sufficient proof of guilt.

One of the key questions that need to be answered is whether the Ministry of the Interior used biometric surveillance to identify persons who attended the blockades and protests?

“If the Ministry of the Interior used such technology, by pairing footage of people on the streets and footage from the database of biometric photographs of citizens it possesses to identify alleged perpetrators, it did so contrary to the Personal Data Protection Act. Thus, it turned to illegal personal data processing. There is no valid legal basis for such data processing in the Serbian legal system, and the Ministry of the Interior has been warned about this several times by the Commissioner for Information and Protection of Personal Data. And if the Ministry of the Interior still claims that it doesn’t use the technology for biometric identification of persons procured from China, as it claimed before, it is difficult to give an acceptable answer to the following question – how, given the scope of demonstrations, number of protesters and other circumstances, could the identification of persons have been performed at all?”, asks Šabić in his text.

As we wrote earlier, the use of cameras for biometric surveillance is not allowed by the valid Serbian laws, although the recently withdrawn Draft Law on Internal Affairs would have allowed it.

The Ministry of the Interior introduced the controversial technology for supervision as part of the projects called “Safe Society” and “Safe City”, done in partnership with the Chinese company Huawei. In 2017, Serbia signed a Memorandum of Strategic Partnership on the Development of Broadband Internet for the purpose of cooperation with Huawei, and in 2019 it signed a Memorandum on the development of the “Smart Cities”. As Radio Free Europe previously published, the “Smart Cities” is a project of the Chinese government that envisages implementation of modern information and telecommunication technologies for detection, analysis and integration of information related to the functioning of urban areas.

In October this year, EU parliamentarians also demanded “a moratorium on the use of biometrics for law enforcement purposes, in the function of identification, except exclusively for the identification of crime victims, until clearly defined conditions are met: that technical standards are harmonized fully with fundamental human rights, that the results of the use of biometrics are not biased and discriminatory, that the legal framework provides strict protection against abuse and strict democratic control, that there is empirical evidence of the necessity and proportionality of the use of such technologies”, which Mašina reported about.

It remains to be seen whether biometric surveillance was used for obtaining evidence for misdemeanour charges that were sent to citizens’ home addresses.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Dec 21, 2021.


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