Today I am venturing into an area about which I have only very superficial knowledge: facial recognition technology. From the little I could learn about the system that is going to be introduced in Hungary at the beginning of 2016, it doesn’t involve taking new pictures of all Hungarian citizens but only coding the existing pictures on their ID cards. I might add that not only the biometric pictures of Hungarian citizens will be stored. So will those of everyone who ever lands on the territory of Hungary. According to László Majtényi, the director of Eötvös Károly Intézet (EKIT), a legal think tank, this new Hungarian facial recognition database will be unique in the world. The technology is widely used to identify known or suspected criminals at entry points such as airports, but only Hungary is going to have biometric pictures of an entire population.
So far only LMP, the Hungarian green party, and EKIT have objected to the introduction of this enormous database, consisting of more than ten million people’s coded “pictures.”
From what I managed to find out about the effectiveness of the technology, I’m not sure whether the Hungarian government picked the best way to keep the country safe from terrorists and other criminals. According to a fairly recent article on the subject, the technology is far from perfect. The FBI apparently has a facial recognition database that includes 52 million faces, about a third of all Americans. But since the data is read off a single mugshot, the accuracy of these biometric photos is only 80%. I think we can safely say that the accuracy of the Hungarian database will not be any better than that of FBI.
Another problem I can foresee is that Hungary is again going its own separate way just when the European Union is beefing up and coordinating security among the nation states. It is not at all clear that the chosen method of screening for would-be-terrorists or simple criminals will be facial recognition. In fact, I suspect that it will not be and that Brussels will settle for traditional fingerprint technology, especially since, as it turns out, the Turkish government fingerprinted and did palm-vein prints on the refugees from Syria who entered Turkey. Moreover, according to a November 17 background briefing on refugee screening and admission, the “biometric checking” the United States has in mind will most likely consist of comparing fingerprints to already existing FBI, State Department, and Department of Defense files. And the existing European Union database of asylum seekers, called Eurodac, is also based on fingerprint technology. Eurodac is described as “the electronic heart of the European asylum system.”
According to vs.hu, sometime in October the director of the migration department in the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office talked to Hungarian journalists about the existence of their near-complete database of Syrian refugees registered in Turkey. However, when vs.hu inquired from EU’s Frontex, which is in charge of “integrated border management,” whether there is any cooperation between them and the Turkish authorities, the answer was “no.” The Turkish migration office confirmed Frontex’s information. The “bureaucrats in Brussels” also seem to be in total darkness concerning the Turkish database. Cooperation requires political will on both sides, and Turkey might extract a high political price to share its database. But as vs.hu‘s András Kósa says in his article, an attempt should certainly be made to see whether the EU could use the Turkish information on the bona fide Syrians registered by Ankara.
If one looks into the history of the idea of introducing a nationwide facial recognition system in Hungary, it is pretty clear that whatever the aim of the Hungarian government is, it has little if anything to do with the current refugee crisis and the anti-terrorism efforts underway. A year ago a “pilot program” was launched in District VIII, using “the very best” unnamed software system. The information received in the district was then sent on to one of the many secret service offices. It was at the end of August that the ministry of interior announced its intention to propose the introduction of such a system nationwide. The reason for its introduction are many: to counter the international forgery of documents, as a tool in criminal investigations, to aid in the identification of dead bodies, and for the security of politicians.
The database itself will not include personal pieces of information, like names and addresses, but there will be a so-called “contact code” which, in case of need, would allow the authorities to access details about the person being sought. In addition to the police, the five or six secret services, TEK (the anti-terrorist super police), even the parliamentary guard responsible for the safety of the speaker of the house, László Kövér–all told, eighteen organizations will have access to the database, which will be maintained by a 50-member office to be established before the newly adopted law takes effect on January 1, 2016.
Human rights activists realize that a greater effort to help ensure the safety of European citizens will have to be made in the face of terrorist threats, but they object to having a database like the one the Hungarian government proposed and parliament adopted on November 17. László Majtényi is convinced that the Constitutional Court of former days would never agreed to the introduction of such a sweeping control mechanism. Today, however, the Hungarian government doesn’t have to worry about the court finding this piece of legislation unconstitutional. So the only outstanding question is how useful the system will be. Surely, it would have made sense to coordinate such an effort with Brussels and other member states instead of going ahead without any consultation. But cooperation is not exactly the strength of Viktor Orbán.