Millions of passport photos of innocent foreigners in police face database
An investigation by RTL Nieuws determined that the police have maintained a facial recognition database containing millions of photos of people who have come to the Netherlands from outside Europe. These are specifically people who have come to study, work, live, or seek asylum in the Netherlands. Experts criticize that it is a violation of privacy, while the police and the Ministry of Justice say it’s legitimate and only used sparingly.
Meanwhile, according to RTL Nieuws, the police database has 8 million facial photos of at least 6.5 million people registered with the Aliens Department. The police use these photos for CATCH, a system for tracking suspects through facial recognition. This mainly affects asylum seekers and foreign students who come from outside the European Union.
However, the process of registering the face in the database is done without the knowledge of the people concerned. This is because people who are not from the European Union and come to the Netherlands are required to take a passport photo for their residence permit, for example. In doing so, a copy is automatically forwarded to the police system. But the persons concerned are not informed about this.
But this process is nothing new, as this system has been used by the police since 2016. For example, the facial database is used when the investigating authorities have difficulty identifying a suspect. The police then use the passport photos collected by the immigration authorities, according to the television program. As a result, the database of faces of potentially illegal migrants is kept next to another police facial database.
Human rights and immigration experts, however, are concerned and criticize that the police violate the law and do not respect privacy by including a majority of facial photos of foreigners, who are in principle innocent, in a police system.
Fieke Jansen who is studying police use of technology at Cardiff University told RTL Nieuws that "With these two databases, the police treat foreigners the same as suspects. Only because they came to the Netherlands from outside the European Union for work, study, a loved one or as a refugee. If they had done something wrong, they would have been in that other database."
Furthermore, legal experts also believe that the police do not comply with the law and even the Dutch Data Protection Authority doubts the legality of the practices of the police.
However, the police reject the criticism. After all, according to a spokesperson, the police must adhere to strict conditions before the facial images of foreigners can be viewed. For example, an investigating judge must grant permission at the request of a public prosecutor who is leading the police investigation on behalf of the public prosecutor's office, RTL Nieuws reported.
But for Ethiopian journalist Anania Sorri Guta, who fled his country in 2017 and came to the Netherlands to seek for asylum, it feels like discrimination.
"The police choose to use these two databases side by side," he said. "There is a prejudice in this: foreigners are just as criminal. Normally you are innocent until proven guilty. For us it is the other way around. Even though facial recognition technology is neutral, we are seen as criminals in advance," he told RTL Nieuws.