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Conversations with Paolo Cirio: Discussing 'Capture' and the Evolution of European Facial Recognition Tech Over 3 Years

zlata pavlovskaia29/01/24 14:08313

Zlata: Hello, my name is Zlata. I’m studying media art, as I mentioned earlier, and I’m writing an essay about your project "Capture" for one of my courses. And I have some questions I’d like to ask you. This won’t take too long, as I’ve found quite a bit of information from the many interviews you’ve already given. Just a heads-up, I might be a bit awkward with this since I don’t have much experience in conducting interviews.

Paolo: Okay. So wait, by the way, can you remind me if you are doing a master’s or a PhD?

Zlata: I’m doing a Master’s degree.

Paolo: You are studying Media art in Austria, right?

Zlata: Yes, I’m enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus program, where we study each semester in different countries. The first semester is in Krems, Austria, then Denmark, Poland, and finally, in one of these three places, depending on our final project topic. I was inspired by your works, especially since they are politically charged. Coming from Russia, where we face similar issues with police and facial recognition, your work resonates with me.

Paolo: Do you currently live in Russia?

Zlata: No, when the war started I needed to move somewhere, and also, I wanted to study more, and that’s how I started looking for study and job opportunities… My first question is about facial recognition technology in France. I understand it’s still a debated topic. Do you think there’s a chance it will be completely banned?

Paolo: Actually, the European Commission recently banned facial recognition across Europe, with exceptions, only in cases of terrorism, and even then, permission is required. For the upcoming Olympics in Paris, they’ve passed invasive security laws, but they claim they do not use facial recognition. Numerous activist organizations were involved in this movement. As a result, facial recognition technology has been banned across Europe. However, it’s crucial to note that technology has advanced significantly. In my view, the need for facial recognition has diminished because there are now tools far more potent and effective. So that’s my take on what’s going on in France right now concerning facial recognition.

Zlata: Yeah, thank you so much. I saw the news about banning facial recognition, and it raised some concerns for me, particularly regarding the terrorism angle. It crossed my mind that they might start labeling almost anything as terrorism, like protests, for instance. But it’s really interesting that you said that now they don’t even really need facial recognition anymore.

Paolo: It’s all because of activists, including myself, who have been protesting against it quite fiercely for years. It’s also about Europe, right? It’s almost part of Europe’s identity to regulate everything as much as possible — more than anywhere else, really. Europe’s role, its identity, is deeply tied to regulating technology extensively. So, they kind of had to do it, right? If they didn’t, it would be like denying their own identity. On the other hand, look at the UK, not too far away, where the use of facial recognition is actually on the rise. Just recently, there was this development where the police can now use facial recognition to identify drivers inside their cars for offenses like speeding. So, you see, while Europe moves towards regulation, facial recognition technology is still expanding its reach elsewhere.

Zlata: It’s pretty much the same in Russia. We get these photos from the police too. Like, if you’re speeding, they snap a picture of you driving, and you can clearly see your own face. Sometimes, those pictures turn out to be quite funny, you know? You’re just driving along, and suddenly there you are. It’s a bit surreal, actually, kind of creepy when you think about it.

Paolo: But then, look at the US, right? Europe’s stance on facial recognition is quite unique, maybe even one-of-a-kind globally, because in most other places, facial recognition isn’t completely off the table. So, to return to your question, getting a total ban on facial recognition is a tough call. That’s why my campaign, which you might have read about, pushes for not just regulation but a near-total ban. I mean, to the point where it’s not even used on iPhones or similar devices. That’s quite a radical stance, but as an artist, I have the liberty to be that radical. You see, when I talked about my campaign with other activists, they found my proposal too extreme. They doubted it would get widespread support because it’s so radical. But that’s the point? My role as an artist is to push the envelope, to challenge the boundaries, to ask for the impossible. Because sometimes, by asking for the impossible, you can actually achieve what is possible. It’s all part of the negotiation process, in a way.

Zlata: Your collection of 50,000 signatures against facial recognition was impressive.

Paolo: And honestly, that was possible because of the strong provocation I made with the police. It really wouldn’t have happened without that. People heard about what was going on, and they got involved; they signed up. Also, it was a time when facial recognition was a big talking point. I have been advocating against Facial Recognition since 2011, however three years ago there was a momentum, you know, there was this movement in the US, 'Ban Facial Recognition, ' it was called, right in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests. There was a lot of concern, a lot of people really believing in the cause, really worried about it. But now, things are different. Post-COVID and all, the level of critique against surveillance systems doesn’t feel as strong as it was before. So, if I were to try to gather that many signatures today, I think it would be a much harder task.

Zlata: And you mentioned that people became really active with the campaign. I’m curious about how active they were in providing names for the policemen on your website. Was it easy for them to start identifying officers? Did you find it challenging to get people to actually contribute names of policemen on your site?

[Connection is cutting off]

Paolo: Hello? Can you hear me? Hello?

Zlata: Yes.

Paolo: Well, people were actively writing down the names of the officers. You see, some of these officers were already known among the activist circles. So, for a few of them, their names were constantly confirmed because we opened up the platform to everyone. It wasn’t just limited to journalists or activists; it was a kind of crowdsourcing effort, but open to the public. Of course, this made it tricky to fact-check and ensure the names were accurate. But, if you saw a particular officer’s name being mentioned by, let’s say, 20 or 30 people, it was a good indication they were known. However, a handful of known officers is nothing compared to the thousands who remained unidentified. The most risky part, though, was collecting these names because that’s where you’re linking biometric data to a specific identity, which was already a complex issue under European privacy law, especially with GDPR. So, according to GDPR, which is this privacy regulation in Europe, you actually can’t collect that kind of data. So, right from the start, it was a legal issue. But I intentionally left a bit of ambiguity on the website. There was this statement where I said I’d publish the names of the police officers once they were verified, confirmed, which, in reality, is nearly impossible. It’s doable, but would require extensive fact-checking and so on. I never intended to follow through because that would have been too risky, not to mention heavily illegal. However, this statement introduced a level of ambiguity that really added to the project’s impact. It transformed the project from just an art piece into something that was perceived as a real threat to the police. That short statement, suggesting that I would publish the names, became a significant point of contention and discussion throughout the project.

Zlata: Did you consider all the risks involved while you were preparing this work? What kind of reaction were you expecting at the outset, and how did it compare to the actual response you received? I’ve seen all the official reactions and everything, but I’m curious about how it felt for you personally. Were you deeply concerned about the potential risks?

[Connection is cutting off again]

Paolo: Hello-hello?

Zlata: Sorry, can you hear me? …Yeah, I was actually asking about the risks. Were you thinking about all the potential risks while you were preparing for this project?

Paolo: Yeah, well, I did think about the risks a bit, but you know, with projects like this, you can never really predict how they will turn out. I’m aware of the risks, and I always try to minimize them for my safety. For example, when I launched the project, I was no longer in France. I worked with a group of people, photographers in Paris, pasting up the pictures, making statements, but without releasing all the information about the police. These measures were all to limit the risks. But the kind of reactions it would get? That’s something you can’t foresee. The strong response from the police unions, for instance, caught me off guard. I didn’t realize they were so influential in France. Almost immediately after the project’s launch, they started tweeting and writing about it actively. That was unexpected. And the aftermath, what unfolded on social media, was also surprising. I didn’t anticipate that many people would openly support the police. I was unsure about this aspect. By the way, did you come across the Google Drive linked on my website? It has screenshots from social media. Did you find that?

Zlata: No, to be honest, I didn’t, I only saw the links for interviews. 

Paolo: I’ll send it over to you. There’s a bit more material in there that you might find interesting.

Zlata: That would be great, thank you so much. And I wanted to ask, are you still facing any consequences because of this work? Can you travel freely, visit France, or are you still dealing with some issues?

Paolo: I just waited. I had to fly low for a bit, tone down the provocations and shift my focus to other projects instead of pushing this one further, and I didn’t travel to France for several months. … So that’s not a problem anymore. But I’ve noticed a kind of censorship effect. Like, I hardly get invited for exhibitions in France these days. This project in particular, nobody in France wants to touch it, which is odd but understandable. And generally, I sense that museums and art institutions are a bit wary of me now. It’s probably because these institutions are government-funded, so there’s a lack of independence. But honestly, it’s a minor issue, nothing like the challenges artists face in countries like China or Russia. So, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge deal.

Zlata: Yes, for example, I had an idea to make an exhibition about the police several years before in Russia. We had a lot of material, such as a multitude of artworks about the police, magazines, and other things. But when I started digging into it, I discovered that someone once tried to do something similar in Russia. And then the police closed it. The exhibition was simply closed forever before it started. This was three years ago, but now it is completely impossible unless you go underground. Back then, it still seemed that you could do something, protest in your own way…Moving on to my last set of questions, about the difficulties of using facial recognition: when you were working on verifying these protest photographs, was it difficult to confirm that the police in these photographs were actually involved in protests in France?

[Connection is cutting off]

Paolo: Sorry, could you clarify the question? Was it difficult to identify the police in the pictures, is that what you’re asking?

Zlata: Yes, exactly. I mean, when you look at a picture with the police in it, how did you make sure it was actually from the protests, from the specific time period and place you were focusing on, like France, for example? Was it a challenge to find those specific images?

Paolo: To find them, you mean?

Zlata: Yes, to actually find those images. And to be certain they were genuine, without any errors.

Paolo: About mistakes, well, I didn’t actually publish any names, so yes, there were some errors in the identification process, which was kind of expected. Finding the pictures wasn’t too difficult. About half of them, I’d say, came from the internet — you know, from social media, newspapers, and websites like Getty Images. Those pictures are usually low resolution, but they’re still usable. It was more time-consuming than anything, just searching on Google and downloading whatever I could find. The other half of the pictures, I got directly from photographers who were actually at the protests. I managed to build some trust with them and paid for hundreds of these high-resolution photos. In total, there were about a thousand pictures, which sounds like a lot but isn’t really, in the grand scheme of things. The whole process took about six months, give or take. It was a slow process, but not particularly challenging.

Then, you know, if you check out the article from Hyperallergic, something interesting happened a few months later, it was November 2020. But not long after my project launched, France passed this security law. It made it illegal to publish any photos of police officers by journalists. This law sparked a lot of controversy — there were actually quite a few violent protests in Paris for several weeks. Under this law, journalists were essentially barred from publishing or even taking photos during protests. People kept doing it, but officially, it is off-limits. And then, there were these rumors, people started saying that this law was a response to my project. I mean, it wasn’t directly because of my project — the law was already in the works. But, kind of coincidentally, it got passed shortly after my project went public. This new law, in a way, made what I did with my project even more unfeasible now, adding another layer of complexity and impossibility due to the legal restrictions it imposed.

Zlata: Your project only highlighted the problem. And for my final question, I’ve seen how incredibly successful your project has been, especially with the ban on facial recognition and all. But given all the risks and consequences you faced, I’m curious: looking back now, would you have done anything differently? Would you have changed any aspect of how you approached or executed the project?

Paolo: No, I think everything unfolded quite well, but I must admit I played my part well in making it happen. These projects are complex, really high-level stuff, and luck plays a big role. (laughing) I can’t claim all the credit because a lot of it was just being at the right place at the right time with the right people. It all aligned perfectly. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. The timing was spot on, though handling the censorship part was tough. But changing that? I mean, it’s not like I would remove some pictures or change my relationship with the institution that commissioned the project, even though they were also the ones who ended up censoring it. Before launching, the institution and curators had concerns about using the photos without blurring faces. I was adamant about not doing that, which was the right decision. As for everything else, it went rather smoothly.

And there was this other big decision after the censorship. Some lawyers came to me, suggesting I should fight back against the censorship. You know, in France, where free speech is a big deal. But at that moment, I decided, no, I wasn’t going to fight it. I felt it was the right call because fighting it would have been really tough on me, probably too risky. But now that I think about it, that’s probably the only thing I’m not entirely sure about. Maybe I should have gone down that path, worked with those lawyers, stood up against the censorship. It would have meant taking the Interior Minister of France to court, actually standing up and fighting in court. It’s something I might have done, but then again, I keep thinking, maybe it wasn’t worth the hassle, maybe it wouldn’t have changed much. 

Zlata: I think, as an artist, you’ve already done so much and really made a significant impact on the whole situation. That’s quite a lot in itself. Paolo, I really appreciate your time, thank you so much. I’ll send over the script of this interview for you to review. Have a wonderful holiday season, and it was truly a pleasure meeting you.

Paolo: You take care too. Bye-bye.

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