Regulating facial recognition in the EU

Written by Tambiama Madiega and Hendrik Mildebrath.

Artificial intelligence (AI) powers the use of biometric technologies, including facial recognition applications, which are used for verification, identification and categorisation purposes by private or public actors. While facial recognition markets are poised to grow substantially in the coming years, the increasing use of facial recognition technologies (FRTs) has emerged as a salient issue in the worldwide public debate on biometric surveillance.

While there are real benefits to using facial recognition systems for public safety and security, their pervasiveness and intrusiveness, as well as their susceptibility to error, give rise to a number of fundamental rights concerns with regard, for instance, to discrimination against certain segments of the population and violations of the right to data protection and privacy. To address such effects, the EU has already put strict rules in place under the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the General Data Protection Regulation, the Law Enforcement Directive and the EU framework on non-discrimination, which also apply to FRT-related processes and activities. However, various actors question the effectiveness of the current EU framework in adequately addressing the FRT-induced fundamental rights concerns. Even if courts attempted to close gaps in protection through an extensive interpretation of the pre-existing legal framework, legal uncertainties and complexities would remain.

Against this backdrop, the draft EU artificial intelligence (AI) act, unveiled in April 2021, aims to limit the use of biometric identification systems including facial recognition that could lead to ubiquitous surveillance. In addition to the existing applicable legislation (e.g. data protection and non-discrimination), the draft AI act proposes to introduce new rules governing the use of FRTs in the EU and to differentiate them according to their ‘high-risk’ or ‘low-risk’ usage characteristics. A large number of FRTs would be considered ‘high risk’ systems which would be prohibited or need to comply with strict requirements. The use of real-time facial recognition systems in publicly accessible spaces for the purpose of law enforcement would be prohibited, unless Member States choose to authorise them for important public security reasons, and the appropriate judicial or administrative authorisations are granted. A wide range of facial recognition technologies used for purposes other than law enforcement (e.g. border control, market places, public transport and even schools) could be permitted subject to a conformity assessment and compliance with some safety requirements before entering the EU market. Conversely, facial recognition systems used for categorisation purposes would be considered ‘low risk’ systems and only subject to limited transparency and information requirements. While stakeholders, researchers and regulators seem to agree on a need for regulation, some critics question the proposed distinction between low-risk and high-risk biometric systems, and warn that the proposed legislation would enable a system of standardisation and self-regulation without proper public oversight. They call for amendments to the draft text, including with regard to the Member States’ leeway in implementing the new rules. Some strongly support stricter rules – including an outright ban on such technologies.

Looking beyond the EU, there is a global surge in use of facial recognition technologies, whilst concerns about state surveillance are mounting and amplified by the fact that there are, so far, very limited legally binding rules applicable to FRTs even in major jurisdictions such as the United States of America (USA) and China. Policy- and law-makers around the globe have the opportunity to discuss – in a multilateral and possibly in a bilateral context – how to put in place adequate controls on the use of facial recognition systems.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Regulating facial recognition in the EU‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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The situation in Afghanistan: Essential benchmarks for EU engagement

Written by Beatrix Immenkamp.

The departure of United States (US) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops from Afghanistan marks the end of a 20-year military campaign that was launched in 2001 to eliminate the Taliban’s ability to provide sanctuary for international terrorists, especially al-Qaeda, and stabilise the country with the help of a democratically elected government. However, as the last US soldier boarded a US military aeroplane on 31 August 2021, terrorists were firing rockets at Kabul airport, members of the democratically elected government, including the president, had either fled abroad or were in hiding, and the Taliban had taken back control of most of Afghanistan. On 7 September 2021, the Taliban announced an all-male caretaker government drawn entirely from the Taliban movement, contrary to earlier promises that the new government would be ‘inclusive’. So far, no country has recognised the interim government. There have been reports of reprisals against security personnel, individuals with links to the previous administration and foreign forces, journalists and minorities, in particular. The rights to education and employment that women have enjoyed for the past 20 years are meanwhile being curtailed.

In the meantime, the humanitarian situation in the country is increasingly desperate. The country relies extensively on foreign aid, most of which is currently suspended, while foreign assets have been frozen. Many Afghans have fled to neighbouring countries, joining the estimated 3-4 million Afghan refugees already living there, mainly in Iran and Pakistan. The EU has expressed concerns over the composition of the interim government, noting that an inclusive and representative government – which the interim government is not – is an essential benchmark for EU engagement. The EU has made available large amounts of humanitarian and development aid and is hoping to establish a diplomatic presence on the ground in Kabul. The EU is also planning to set up a regional platform for cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours on issues including population flows from Afghanistan, terrorism, organised crime and drugs.

This Briefing expands and updates an ‘At a glance’ note published on 2 September 2021.

Read the complete briefing on ‘The situation in Afghanistan: Essential benchmarks for EU engagement‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Further reading:

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Recovery plan for Europe: State of play, September 2021

Written by Magdalena Sapała with Nina Thomassen.

Since the beginning of 2021, Member States and EU institutions have been preparing intensively to launch the recovery instrument, Next Generation EU (NGEU). In order to make this unique financial stimulus package fully operational, many conditions have needed to be met and preparatory steps completed.

First, preparations have been ongoing for the spending of the biggest part of NGEU (90 %) under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). This process includes the drawing up of national recovery and resilience plans by the Member States, their evaluation by the European Commission, and approval by the Council of the EU. Up to 15 September 2021, most of the national plans submitted have been positively assessed by the Commission and approved by the Council (18). Based on this, the Commission concluded agreements with those Member States on a legal commitment authorising the financial contribution to be made, and the first transfers of EU aid (pre-financing) were made on 3 August. In the case of some countries, however, the assessment procedure has been delayed.   

In parallel, the system for financing NGEU had to be created almost from scratch. It is based on borrowing operations carried out by the European Commission on behalf of the European Union. These operations could start only once all Member States had ratified the Own Resources Decision (ORD), which was done by the end of May 2021. In the meantime, the Commission was preparing for its role of borrower on an unprecedented scale. At the beginning of the summer, it started implementing its diversified funding strategy for the financing of NGEU. In three issuances successfully conducted so far, the Commission has raised €45 billion in total out of the €80 billion planned for 2021.

This is an update of a Briefing of 7 June 2021.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Recovery plan for Europe: State of play, September 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Statistics, Data and Trust: Why figures matter in today’s world

Written by Giulio Sabbati.

Why do figures matter in today’s world? How do we build and maintain trust in data and statistics? In an era which has seen such an explosion of data, should we not talk about data communication rather than dissemination? What does good data mean? How can data influence policy-makers? Are data literacy and ethics related to each other?

These and other topics were raised during the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) roundtable on ‘Statistics, Data and Trust: Why figures matter in today’s world’, held on 8 September 2021.

Vice-President of the European Parliament, Othmar Karas Introduced the event, which was moderated by Etienne Bassot, Director of the Members’ Research Service. The speakers were Mariana Kotzeva, Director General of EUROSTAT, Stefan Schweinfest, Director of the United Nations Statistics Division UNSTATS; Gaby Umbach, Director of GlobalStat and part-time Professor at the European University Institute (EUI); and Giulio Sabbati, Head of the Statistical and Data Visualisation Support Office, EPRS.

The composition of the roundtable could be compared to a statistical family. On one side were the data producers, represented by the UN and Eurostat, and on the other side data users in the shape of Globalstat and the EPRS Data Viz Office. And as a family, the participants all spoke the same language; that of statistics. In his introductory remarks, Mr Karas highlighted the importance of the UN fundamental principles of statistics and the European statistics code of practice. These are the global standards that statisticians need: to understand and to talk each other, and to learn from each other.

All the participants responded to the question in the roundtable’s title: why figures matter in today’s world? Being aware that figures are part of everyday life, as we often need to measure something to take actions, statistics are fundamental for making better informed decisions; official statistics are the foundation of any international information system;  data are essential for collective political action; the use of statistics has become a political power resource, and access to and understanding of data is becoming more and more important.

Historically, statistics started with surveys, then that expanded to public administrative sources and now in today’s world we face an explosion of data. The data ecosystem is much broader now – not only with official and non-official statistics, but also for instance with big data, digital data and geospatial data.

It is true that more data means more information; but it also means attempts at disinformation, raises questions such as over respecting privacy, and also means there is much data which are not good. But what is good data? It could refer to objectivity, accuracy, relevance, transparency or timeliness. Good data are based on scientific solid production processes. Ultimately a good data item is one that is responsibly and effectively used.

Mr Karas insisted in his message on how data and statistics are nothing if we cannot trust them. But how do we gain trust? First of all, using data that come from institutes with the highest international and European principles and standards. Official statistics in the EU and in the world are based on principles. And in the EU they are also based on a legal framework.

As a good product needs a good marketing campaign, so do official statistics. They need communication to build trust. Presenting statistics and data in an understandable and exciting way. Trust comes also with small actions when communicating: data properly ordered; clear labels; consistency in colours; texts to help understand a graph and to explain the data. It is also important to tell the story of where the data come from.

And what about data literacy, the ability to read data, to get data, to understand the meaning, what to do with them? Certainly, ethics plays an important role. It put limits on data use: what cannot be said with data and which questions need to be raised to understand.

What if we started teaching data literacy at school? How could we encourage this type of career path? Perhaps by quoting the article of the New York Times which said that ‘statistician is among the top ten sexy professions’.

The message from the roundtable could perhaps best be summarised with a quote form Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and statistician, who used the power of statistics to promote sustainable global development and to fight misinformation and misconceptions.

The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.

Video recording of the event

Further reading:

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China: Economic indicators and trade with EU

Written by Gyorgyi Macsai (Members’ Research Service) with Igor Tkalec (GlobalStat, EUI).

Graphics: Giulio Sabbati.

The Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the continuous slowdown of China’s economy, from two-digit growth rates witnessed in the past to a ‘new normal’ growth rate of ‘only’ 5.7% on average under the current five-year plan (2016-2020). To what extent does this slowdown affect China’s public finances and other macroeconomic indicators? How has EU trade with China developed during the last decade? How important is the EU for China in terms of trade? And what about China’s trade relevance for the EU? Has the huge trade imbalance in goods trade between China and the EU narrowed in recent years? How intensive is trade in services between the EU and China? What are the EU’s main export items to China? How does China’s export basket look like? You can find the answers to these and other questions in our EPRS publication on China produced in collaboration with the European University Institute’s GlobalStat on the world’s main economies. This is an updated edition of an ‘At a Glance’ note published in December 2019.

Read this infographic on ‘China: Economic indicators and trade with EU‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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European Parliament Plenary Session – September 2021

Written by Clare Ferguson.

An important moment in Parliament’s oversight of the EU executive takes place during the September plenary session, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends Parliament on Wednesday morning to make her second State of the Union address. With a difficult year behind it, issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, the effects of climate change and increasing digitalisation continue to present the Commission with both challenges and opportunities. While the new multiannual financial framework allows financing for the recovery plan for Europe and Next Generation EU, Members will expect to hear how the Commission intends to address the challenges that remain to achieve its stated six priorities, including on the continuing issue of adherence to EU values.

The coronavirus pandemic and its effects nevertheless remain a priority issue, and the session commences on Thursday afternoon with a joint debate on health and disease prevention. As life has returned to something approaching normal during the summer, wider health issues remain a legislative priority, and efforts continue to strengthen the EU’s response to health threats. These include proposals to boost EU defences against cross-border health threats, and to strengthen the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Although responsibility for health policy remains with the Member States, the pandemic has highlighted areas where stronger preparedness measures could better protect EU citizens and address cross-border health threats in future. Parliament will debate a Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) report that supports increased consideration of all environmental, animal or human factors with an impact on health, as well as promoting cooperation and transparency – which could lead to smoother joint procurement for items such as personal protection equipment, should that be necessary in future. A further ENVI committee report on strengthening the ECDC is also due for debate. The committee proposes enlarging the ECDC’s mandate beyond communicable diseases to cover those that have a wide impact, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, diabetes, and mental illness. Once Parliament’s position is agreed on these two legislative proposals, interinstitutional negotiations can begin.

With an ageing population and an increasing need for skilled workers to sustain economic growth, the EU has to compete with other regions to attract highly qualified immigrants. On Tuesday evening, Parliament will debate a final text resulting from interinstitutional negotiations on the proposed revision of the EU Blue Card Directive. Parliament has long called for the revision of this legislation, which provides a legal route for migration to the bloc, not least in the face of considerable recent refugee movements. Should Parliament agree the new rules, skilled applicants will be admitted to remain on EU territory for at least two years if they are able to present a minimum six-month work contract or binding job offer. Admission to the EU Blue Card scheme should also become more inclusive, with reduced salary thresholds.

Later on Tuesday evening, Members are expected to take part in a joint debate on formal adoption, following interinstitutional negotiations, of the text setting out Parliament’s position at first reading on the Brexit Adjustment Reserve. Parliament has succeeded in modifying the proposals to ensure support for EU businesses – particularly fisheries and those in close proximity to the United Kingdom – against the additional costs ensuing from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. A €5 billion budget will be made available over the period to December 2023, with funds distributed using an allocation method taking account of each country’s trade with the UK, its fisheries in UK waters, and the population size in maritime border regions neighbouring the UK. Members are also expected to debate measures to adapt the current EU budget to cover €4 billion in pre-financing for the ‘Brexit Adjustment Reserve’, under amending budget No 1/2021.

While the 1994 EU‑Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement remains in force today, relations have deteriorated since 2000. An already strained situation has worsened in the face of aggressive Russian foreign policy in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its repression of domestic dissent. Parliament is scheduled to debate political relations between the EU and Russia on Tuesday afternoon, following which Parliament is also expected to vote on a draft recommendation to Council, the Commission and the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Foreign Affairs (AFET) Committee’s draft recommendations call for a revision of the current stance, which combines pushing back with constraint and engagement, and proposes to base future relations on six principles. These include activating deterrence against security and hybrid threats alongside dialogue and engagement that offers incentives, such as trade and visas, in support of Russian democratic transformation. Members also expect to hear a statement by the High Representative on the situation in Afghanistan.

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The von der Leyen Commission’s six priorities: State of play in Autumn 2021

When the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, takes the floor in Strasbourg before the European Parliament to deliver her 2021 State of the Union address, she will report to Members of the European Parliament and, beyond them, to European citizens, after what has been the second summer of the Covid-19 pandemic. The coronavirus is still far from being tamed, and life – from everyday routine at individual level to global trends affecting the whole world – has entered a phase of profound change. Yet, as summer 2021 comes to a close, one of the leading impressions for many Europeans is of slowly recovering one of the freedoms at the heart of European Union, the freedom of movement they had been deprived of for public health reasons.

Mass travel in Europe became possible again during summer 2021, with 70 % of the adult population in Europe fully vaccinated and able to prove it thanks to the ‘Covid passport’ adopted by the European Union (EU) just before the summer. This legislative success reached in record time is illustrated by the cover photograph, where the presidents of the three institutions involved in its adoption (from left to right: António Costa, for the EU Council, Ursula von der Leyen, for the European Commission, and David Maria Sassoli, for the European Parliament) hold copies of the Regulation on the EU Digital Covid Certificate signed on 14 June. The certificate with a QR code is free of charge, available on paper or on a smartphone, and valid throughout the EU. For European citizens who could at last visit their loved ones, spend their summer break in another EU Member State, after many months of often highly restrictive measures, or simply get access to bars and restaurants in their home region, this initiative has shown the positive benefit of the EU, and is all the more noteworthy as it comes in a field – public health – that is not one of the core EU competences.

However, summer 2021 has left other lasting impressions that are more negative. Many are still shaken by the photographs – never mind those that experienced them directly – of mega-fires, unprecedented heatwaves, and deadly floods in various parts of the EU. Just one extreme rain episode caused a heavy toll of more than 200 deaths in Belgium and Germany, underlining once again the need to address climate change urgently. Combined with longer-term data confirming global warming and loss of biodiversity, this experience supports the priority given by the Commission to the European Green Deal. Even more, it confirms that Parliament has been right to be ambitious on climate, for example when it pushed for a higher target for the reduction of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (60 % for the Parliament instead of 55 % in the Commission’s proposal, with the latter target later endorsed by the Council). On climate and environmental issues, including the principle of climate mainstreaming in the EU budget, the Parliament has repeatedly called for higher ambition – and often secured it, as with the 30 % of the overall resources from the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the Next Generation EU recovery instrument which will go to measures contributing to the fight against climate change.

As part of the European Green Deal, the European Commission tabled a ‘Fit for 55’ package in mid-July, including legislative proposals on climate, energy, land use, transport and taxation. The number of proposals foreshadowed (90) indeed makes the European Green Deal the Commission’s first priority in terms of announcements, although not in terms of proposals tabled (two-thirds (58) are yet to be submitted), let alone legislation adopted (only one sixth (15) so far).

Another dreadful event of summer 2021 has been the situation unfolding in Afghanistan. It calls for immediate humanitarian aid measures and visa solutions, but also brings asylum and migration issues to the forefront. This comes one year after the Commission’s proposal of the long-awaited new pact on migration and asylum, initially announced for the beginning of 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic (see fifth section below). This pact was supposed to bring new momentum to negotiations stalled for years. The number of legislative proposals under this priority should not disguise the difficulties in finding compromise and adopting legislation in this area, however urgent and dramatic the situation in Afghanistan, the Mediterranean and even on the shores facing the United Kingdom, may be.

Alongside these headline issues, the von der Leyen Commission is expecting progress on long-term files too: helping the EU recover from the coronavirus-crisis (see third section below), turning the EU into a digital continent (see second section below), becoming the ‘geopolitical Commission’ President von der Leyen claimed she would run when she took office (see fourth section below), and paving the way for the future of Europe, notably with the eponymous conference (see sixth section below).

This paper monitors all six priorities. It combines a two-page presentation for each priority and an infographic illustrating, in condensed form, on just one page (page 3), the degree of progress so far made – both overall and under each of the six priorities.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘The von der Leyen Commission’s six priorities: State of play in Autumn 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

The von der Leyen Commission's six priorities: Legislative delivery to 31 August 2021The von der Leyen Commission's six priorities: Legislative delivery to 31 August 2021
The von der Leyen Commission’s six priorities: Legislative delivery to 31 August 2021
The von der Leyen Commission's six priorities: Legislative delivery to 31 August 2021The von der Leyen Commission's six priorities: Legislative delivery to 31 August 2021 Български (jpg | pdf) – Español (jpg | pdf) – Čeština (jpg | pdf) – Dansk (jpg | pdf) – Deutsch (jpg | pdf) – Eesti Keel (jpg | pdf) – Ελληνικά (jpg | pdf) – English (jpg | pdf) – Français (jpg | pdf) – Gaeilge (jpg | pdf) – Hrvatski (jpg | pdf) – Italiano (jpg | pdf) – Latviešu Valoda (jpg | pdf) – Lietuvių Kalba (jpg | pdf) – Magyar (jpg | pdf) – Malti (jpg | pdf) – Nederlands (jpg | pdf) – Polski (jpg | pdf) – Português (jpg | pdf) – Română (jpg | pdf) – Slovenčina (jpg | pdf) – Slovenščina (jpg | pdf) – Suomi (jpg | pdf) – Svenska (jpg | pdf)
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Ten composite indices for policy-making

Written by Eric Pichon, Agnieszka Widuto, Alina Dobreva and Liselotte Jensen.

Policy-making is a difficult art. In a globalised world, decisions that do not take account of the bigger picture can have far-reaching unintended consequences. The current global debate on measures to tackle Covid-19 and vaccinate entire populations offers ample examples of just how intertwined are the social, economic, technological and other impacts of any policy. Policy-makers need to be able to trust data to help them make the best decisions.

Rough data are sometimes difficult to get hold of. Various non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academics and think-tanks meanwhile produce tools aimed at interpreting data. These include composite indices that gather data from different sources in order to visualise the multiple dimensions of a specific concept more clearly. A composite index often proposes a ranking of countries. Such indices help to capture a comprehensive overview of a given situation and grasp its constitutive elements more easily. They provide for comparisons between countries or regions on a standard basis, and, when they are updated on a regular basis, give a good overview of the evolution of a situation over time. This can help with designing policies to prevent or mitigate risks and to encourage positive development. Indices can also – up to a certain point – help monitor the impact of policies and support forecasting exercises.

Fulfilling its core mission of ’empowering through knowledge’, in this analysis EPRS proposes a non-exclusive selection – which is in no way to be perceived as a ranking – of 10 composite indices in a range of policy areas. The indices selected are from reliable sources, already used as references by policy-makers. The majority have a good geographical coverage. With one exception – retained on account of its quality and uniqueness – they cover all EU Member States and/or most UN member states. The selection is also designed to cover some key EU policies, and most of the UN 2030 Agenda sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Each index is presented in a dedicated chapter that presents its producers and describes their objectives in publishing the index, the data compiled, and their actual and potential use by policy-makers. The chapters also highlight the potential limitations in using the indices. All composite indices of course are inevitably biased, as they select some indicators and reject others. They also standardise data that originated in heterogeneous units; therefore, the more indicators a composite index encompasses, the more bias it may carry. According to experts, this does not challenge the value of indicators, provided the authors’ vision and biases are acknowledged.

The information provided in this publication is geared towards supporting policy-makers by providing sources of data and by identifying possible biases in using them. Evidence and data are key to policy-making, particularly when it comes to making foresight reports, setting priorities, mitigating negative impacts and finding optimum trade-offs. In this context, when used properly, indicators can underpin better regulation.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten composite indices for policy-making‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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State of the Union address, European Parliament, 2021

Written by Rafał Mańko.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s second State of the Union address, scheduled for 15 September 2021, will be delivered at a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to pose challenges for the European Union and its Member States. At the same time, thanks to the adoption of the multiannual financial framework for the 2021-2027 period, new opportunities lie ahead – the recovery plan for Europe and Next Generation EU. Furthermore, the Conference on the Future of Europe was finally launched on 9 May 2021. Nevertheless, a number of unresolved issues and new challenges remain. These include ensuring that EU values (Article 2 TEU) are upheld in the Member States, including through the application of the recently adopted Conditionality Regulation, addressing the threat of climate change, and equipping Europe for the digital age.

The tradition of EU State of the Union addresses, delivered to the European Parliament by the President of the European Commission, dates back to 2010. The address takes stock of the achievements of the past year and presents priorities for the year ahead. It constitutes an important instrument for the European Commission’s ex-ante accountability vis-à-vis Parliament and is also aimed at rendering the definition of priorities at EU level more transparent, and at communicating those priorities to citizens. The event chimes with a similar tradition in national democracies. The United States, for instance, has a long-standing tradition of presidential State of the Union addresses, in which the President speaks in the Capitol to a joint session of Congress, thus fulfilling a constitutional obligation. In contrast to the US Constitution, the EU Treaties do not prescribe a State of the Union address; the EU version was established by the 2010 Framework Agreement between Parliament and the Commission.

This briefing further updates an earlier one from September 2016, originally written by Eva-Maria Poptcheva.

Read the complete briefing on ‘State of the Union address, European Parliament, 2021‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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What if deepfakes made us doubt everything we see and hear? [Science and Technology podcast]

Written by Philip Boucher.

Deepfakes are hyper-realistic media products created through artificial intelligence (AI) techniques that manipulate how people look and the things that they appear to say or do. They hit the headlines in 2018 with a deepfake video of Barack Obama, which was designed to raise awareness of their challenges. The accessibility and outputs of deepfake generation tools are improving rapidly, and their use is increasing exponentially. A wide range of malicious uses have been identified, including fraud, extortion and political disinformation. The impacts of such misuse can be financial, psychological and reputational. However, the most widespread use so far has been the production of non-consensual pornographic videos, with negative impacts that overwhelmingly affect women. Deepfakes may also contribute to worrying trends in our media, as well as in our social and democratic systems. While the technology itself is legal, some malicious uses are not, and a combination of legal and technical measures may be mobilised to limit their production and dissemination.

The name ‘deepfake’ combines ‘deep’ as in deep learning, and ‘fake’, as in manipulated or entirely fabricated. The best-known examples of deepfakes are videos that manipulate how people look, and the things that they appear to say or do. However, they can also include still images, audio or even written texts that are designed to present a distorted representation of events.

In contrast to more traditional media manipulation techniques, deepfake production relies on an innovative deep learning technique called ‘generative adversarial networks‘ (GANs), which can increase both the degree of automation and the quality of the output compared to conventional techniques. GANs generate deepfakes by pitting two AI agents – also described as artificial neural networks – against each other. While the producer agent learns to create fakes that look just like standard recordings, a detector agent learns to identify whether a media product is fake or authentic. A feedback loop is generated between the two so that, as the producer agent learns, it gets better at fooling the detector by creating more realistic fakes and, as the detector agent learns, it finds more sophisticated ways of identifying the fakes. In the end, the producer agent can create extremely realistic fakes and sometimes only its adversary – the detector agent – can tell that they are not authentic. An interesting side effect of this learning process is that the two agents improve together. So, by creating a great deepfake producer, you also create a great deepfake detector, and vice-versa.

Rudimentary use of deepfake production tools with limited resources may allow some generally low-quality results. However, producing high-quality deepfakes that really pass for authentic recordings requires substantial data and programming skills. Nonetheless, the increasing availability of data and accessible tools is making it easier for more people to make their own deepfakes.

Potential impacts and developments

The number of deepfake videos online is growing exponentially. The best-known examples have used the faces of famous people, such as Barack Obama and Tom Cruise, partly because there is so much data available. However, these examples were clearly labelled as deepfakes, and were designed to show the world what was possible, while highlighting opportunities and challenges. Legitimate applications include art, satire and entertainment, with notable examples including special effects and personal avatars.

Yet, the malicious use of deepfakes can also cause serious harm to individuals, as well as to our social and democratic systems. Deepfakes may be misused to commit fraud, extortion, bullying and intimidation, as well as to falsify evidence, manipulate public debates and destabilise political processes. Political disinformation is often cited as the biggest risk of deepfakes and, indeed, a well-timed deepfake during an election campaign could do enormous damage on several levels. Until now, however, the overwhelming majority of deepfakes have been pornographic videos produced without the consent of the women that are falsely depicted in them. This reveals a substantial gender discrimination aspect of the technology, because the negative impacts disproportionately affect women.

Those that are most directly affected by malicious deepfakes are the individual victims of fraud, blackmail, disinformation and non-consensual pornography. Targets have included citizens, businesses, and public figures. However, perhaps the biggest victim of deepfakes is the notion of truth. Just as manipulated videos can be presented as authentic, genuine recordings may also, as a result, be falsely dismissed as high-quality deepfakes. As such, simply knowing that deepfakes exist can be enough to undermine our confidence in all media representations, and make us doubt the authenticity of everything we see and hear online.

While manipulated media is nothing new, deepfakes may be more difficult to detect than previous techniques. Furthermore, various features of the current technical, social and legal context may enhance the risks associated with the technology. For example, the widespread use of social media and private messaging applications allows for the rapid dissemination and amplification of content with limited oversight. Our social context may also play a role, as deepfakes are well aligned with a growing climate of mistrust and polarisation. The legal status of deepfakes may vary across jurisdictions and could be further complicated by the possibility for malicious users to evade detection and enforcement efforts. Deepfakes are not the sole or even primary source of these social, technological and legal concerns, but they develop synergies with other malevolent elements of this context, benefitting from the environment to prosper while contributing to its maintenance and development.

Anticipatory policy-making

Deepfakes are, in themselves, perfectly legal, although some malicious applications are not. Some risks of malicious deepfakes may be mitigated through technical and legal measures, such as ensuring that they are properly labelled as non-authentic. The European Parliament has called for mandatory labelling of deepfakes, and this does indeed feature in the draft text of the proposed artificial intelligence act. The draft digital services act sets out rules for flagging and removing illegal content, which could help to interrupt their circulation and amplification. Both are currently under negotiation. In terms of technology, the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme also supported the development of innovative responses to the challenges of deepfakes. Such technical and legal measures cannot respond to all risks of malicious deepfakes, and their effectiveness will likely depend upon the technical and legal measures that are introduced to enforce them. Of course, any limitations need to be balanced against freedom of expression and freedom of the arts and sciences. However, while we are free to create media products such as deepfakes, we are not automatically entitled to have them widely circulated and seen. It is important to consider how malicious deepfakes are circulated and amplified online, as well as their role within wider social and political trends, because these are key factors in determining their resonance and impact. In this context, the European Parliament has stressed the importance of media pluralism, quality journalism and awareness-raising.

Read the complete ‘at a glance’ on ‘What if deepfakes made us doubt everything we see and hear?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Listen to policy podcast ‘What if deepfakes made us doubt everything we see and hear?’ on YouTube.

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