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POLITICO: France chooses between security and privacy

18-1-2023 |

France is seeking to massively expand its arsenal of surveillance powers and tools to secure the millions of tourists expected for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.

Among the plans are large-scale, real-time camera systems supported by an algorithm to spot suspicious behavior, including unsupervised luggage and alarming crowd movements like stampedes.

Senators on Wednesday will vote on a law introducing the new powers, which are supposed to be temporary, with some lawmakers pushing to allow controversial facial-recognition technology.

The stakes are high: The government badly wants to avoid “failures” like the ones that dented its reputation during the Champions League final last summer, and the trauma of the 2015 Paris terror attacks still looms large over the country.

But the plans are already causing an uproar among privacy campaigners. "The Olympic Games are used as a pretext to pass measures the [security technology] industry has long been waiting for," said Bastien Le Querrec from digital rights NGO La Quadrature du Net, who's leading a campaign against algorithmic video surveillance.

The French government already backtracked on deploying facial recognition after lawmakers within President Emmanuel Macron’s majority party raised concerns. It was also forced by the country's data protection authority and top administrative court to build in more privacy safeguards.

One key question is what will happen to the AI-powered devices once the Olympic Games are over, especially since the legislation mentions not only sports events but also "festive" and "cultural" gatherings.

In the past, Le Querrec warned, security measures initially designed to be temporary — for example, under the state of emergency that followed the 2015 attacks — ended up becoming permanent.

After the Senate votes on the law to allow "experimentations" with the surveillance systems, the legislation will go to the National Assembly, and lawmakers in both chambers are expected to fight over the balance between privacy and security.