An airplane trace is seen behind a Kyrgyzstan national flag fluttering in a central square in Bishkek March 11, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

On October 31, Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov inaugurated a new police command center in the capital city of Bishkek. But this local event had an international human rights dimension: the center will manage a network of cameras equipped with facial recognition technology and installed throughout the city. It is also provided by and paid for, at least in part, by a Chinese state company.

In March, Kyrgyzstan’s government signed an agreement with China National Electronic Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC) to install technology to improve “public and road safety.” But there was little transparency around the deal and how facial images of Kyrgyz people and other personal data would be collected, stored, and transferred. It is also unclear whether there are legal safeguards that restrict CEIEC from accessing such data. Human Rights Watch wrote to CEIEC for more information but received no reply.

The use of facial recognition technology in public spaces can allow governments to track and monitor people’s habits and movements, creating potential chilling effects on freedoms of expression and assembly. It can also be used to single out individuals in discriminatory ways, including for their ethnicity or religion. In Kyrgyzstan, the rollout of facial recognition technology was approved without public consultation or necessary transparency, making it unclear how or if the government plans to mitigate the technology’s potential impact on privacy.

The situation in the Chinese region of Xinjiang should serve as a warning to Kyrgyz citizens. When deployed with few actionable privacy rights or protections, this technology can facilitate gross human rights violations. In Xinjiang, the Chinese government uses various technologies including facial recognition, surveillance cameras, and big data programs to monitor and track ethnic Uyghur and other citizens. Anyone flagged as “problematic” based on vague criteria may be sent to “political education camps” and subjected to political indoctrination.

Kyrgyz laws establish some privacy protections. The Kyrgyz constitution enshrines the right to privacy, the Law on Biometric Registration requires that individuals consent to data collection, and the Law on Personal Information bans the collection of personal data without consent.

But these laws also create broad exemptions for national security or law enforcement purposes, and there is no law regulating facial recognition technology specifically. The opaque terms of the CEIEC deal create the risk that the Kyrgyz government could use increased security as a blanket justification for mass surveillance of its citizens.

Under international human rights law, Kyrgyzstan has obligations to ensure that government collection, retention, and use of biometrics is well-regulated, narrow in scope, and necessary and proportionate to meeting a legitimate security goal. The Kyrgyz government should pause the rollout of facial recognition technology, disclose the details of this deal, and provide privacy protections that meet international standards.