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French parliament says oui to AI surveillance for 2024 Paris Olympics

Liberté, égalité, reconnaissance faciale for all

Despite the opposition of 38 civil society groups, the French National Assembly has approved the use of algorithmic video surveillance during the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Endorsed by French senators in January, the proposed law for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games cleared a committee vote earlier this month. On Thursday, the French National Assembly adopted Article 7 of the pending bill, which authorizes automated analysis of surveillance video from fixed and drone cameras.

Specifically, it allows such surveillance "On an experimental basis and until June 30, 2025, for the sole purpose of ensuring the security of sporting, recreational or cultural events which, by their scale or their circumstances, are particularly exposed to the risk of acts of terrorism or serious threats to the safety of persons, the images collected by means of video protection systems … and cameras installed on aircraft … in the places hosting these events and in their surroundings, as well as in vehicles and public transport rights-of-way." It probably sounds more romantic in French.

Opponents of the bill are worried this is putting the foot in the door for future surveillance.

The European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), European Digital Rights (EDRi), La Quadrature du Net, Amnesty International France and the other 34 rights groups opposing the AI surveillance plan disputed the bill in an open letter [PDF].

The EU's General Data Protection Regulation, the rights groups say, defines biometric data as any physical, physiological or behavioral characteristics that can be used to identify a person.

"If the purpose of algorithm-driven cameras is to detect specific suspicious events in public spaces, they will necessarily capture and analyze physiological features and behaviors of individuals present in these spaces, such as their body positions, gait, movements, gestures, or appearance," the open letter reads.

"Isolating individuals from the background, without which it would be impossible to achieve the aim of the system, will amount to 'unique identification.'"

The ENCL and its allies argue that France would become the first member of the EU to explicitly legalize automated surveillance – which violates international human rights law by ignoring balancing tests of necessity and proportionality.

Though the surveillance plan is scheduled to expire, the rights groups contend that technology, once implemented, tends to stick around. They cite the longevity of security measures enacted for the 2012 Olympics in London and the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Mher Hakobyan, Amnesty International's advocacy advisor on AI regulation, issued a statement, arguing "While France promotes itself as a champion of human rights globally, its decision to legalize AI-powered mass surveillance during the Olympics will lead to an all-out assault on the rights to privacy, protest, and freedom of assembly and expression."

Hakobyan added that surveillance technology tends to disproportionately target marginalized groups.

Amnesty International is part of a related group of advocacy groups, led by the European Digital Rights Network (EDRi), that are trying to convince the EU to impose stronger restrictions on algorithmic (AI) decision-making. ®

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