The French government’s plans to test artificial intelligence-boosted surveillance cameras at the 2024 Olympics are infuriating opponents who say they are unnecessary and dangerous security breaches.
While the government says such systems are necessary to handle millions of crowds and detect potential dangers, critics see the bill as a gift to French industry at the expense of vital civil liberties.
Last week, some 40 mostly left-leaning MEPs warned in an open letter to French lawmakers that the plan “sets a surveillance precedent unprecedented in Europe,” daily Le Monde reported.
Debates began late Monday in the National Assembly, France’s lower chamber of parliament, and will resume on Friday.
Before debates began, MPs had already tabled 770 amendments to the government’s far-reaching Olympic security law, many targeting Article 7.
This section stipulates that video recorded by existing or new surveillance systems – including cameras mounted on drones – will be “processed by algorithms”.
Artificial intelligence software would “detect, in real time, predetermined events likely to pose or reveal a risk” of “terrorist attacks or serious security breaches,” such as unusual crowd movements or abandoned bags.
The systems would then report the events to the police or other security services, who could decide on a response.
– Biometric or not? –
The government is struggling to reassure that the smart camera tests would not process any biometric data and in particular would not use facial recognition, technologies that the French public is reluctant to use too widely.
“The experiment is timed very precisely… (and) the algorithm does not replace human judgement, which remains crucial,” Sport Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera told MPs.
The Interior Ministry highlights a February poll for the daily newspaper Figaro, which suggests that large majorities support the use of cameras in public spaces and especially in stadiums.
The story goes on
However, opponents say the plans exceed the limits of the French constitution and European law.
Digital rights group La Quadrature du Net (QDN) wrote in a report to lawmakers that the systems would indeed process sensitive “biometric” data, according to a broad 2022 definition by the French Ombudsman for Rights.
As biometric data, these features would be shielded by the European Union’s powerful General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), argues QDN.
A Home Office spokesman dismissed this finding, insisting the proposed processing would not use biometrics or facial recognition techniques.
– ‘Emergency’ –
The camera testing period is set to run until the end of 2024, according to the draft law – well after the Games have ended and for other major events including the Rugby World Cup later this year.
Once the law is adopted, public authorities such as the emergency services and those responsible for road safety in the Paris region can request its use.
The Home Office said it “should cover a significant number of major events” in order to have “the most complete and relevant assessment”.
But QDN activist Naomi Levain told AFP: “It’s classic that the Olympics are used to make things happen that wouldn’t happen in normal times.”
“It is understandable that there are extraordinary measures for an extraordinary event, but we are going beyond a text aimed at securing the Olympics,” Socialist MP Roger Vicot told the chamber on Monday.
Elise Martin, an MP following the process for hard-left opposition party France Unbowed (LFI), told AFP that the bill is just the latest in a series of additional security powers introduced under President Emmanuel Macron since 2017.
“The way this law is meant to be, it’s like we’re living in a permanent state of emergency,” she said.
– “Industry Favor” –
Meanwhile, QDN’s Levain stressed that “many of the leading companies in this market are French companies” and called the draft law’s provisions a “favor for the industry”.
The size of the video surveillance market in France alone was estimated at 1.7 billion euros ($1.8 billion) in an article published by industry association AN2V in 2022, with the global business being many times larger.
If passed, the law would make the 2024 Olympics a “safety showcase and laboratory,” allowing companies to test systems and collect training data for their algorithms, Levain said.
Some cities in France, such as the Mediterranean port of Marseille, already use “enhanced” surveillance in what is currently a legal gray area.
Such data is needed to train computer programs on what types of behavior to flag as suspicious and to learn to recognize patterns in moving images – just as text AIs like ChatGPT are trained on large amounts of writing before creating their own can produce written output .
However, opponents say there is little or no evidence that enhanced surveillance – or even more traditional CCTV systems – can prevent crimes or other incidents related to major sporting and cultural events targeted by the bill.
Smart cameras “wouldn’t have changed anything at the Stade de France last year,” said Levain, as huge crowds of Liverpool supporters were packed into a confined space as they waited to progress to the Champions League final.
“It was poor human management, there is know-how to manage a crowd, calculations have to be made to place barriers and direct flows… no camera can do that,” she added.