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Expect biometric mass surveillance in Paris in 2024: French Parliament approves automated monitoring of public spaces for „suspicious behaviour“

European Parliament Freedom, democracy and transparency Press releases

Yesterday, the French Parliament (‘Assemblée Nationale’) adopted Article 7 of the Olympic Games law, with 59 votes in favour and 14 against.

Article 7 of the legislation authorises police authorities during sporting, recreational or cultural events to use surveillance cameras and error-prone artificial intelligence to automatically look for and report supposedly “abnormal” or “suspicious” behaviour. Video feeds from drones and from the thousands of CCTV cameras will be examined in real time, supposedly merely to find abandoned bags and monitor crowd movements – but the text leaves the definition of such ‚abnormalities‘ to be defined later-on by governmental decree, and the government itself tip-toed around giving other examples when requested to do so by MPs. The Parliament was abnormally-empty at the time of the vote, with 73 MPs out of 577 present, due to nation-wide protests being acted in response to the pension reform.

Last week, 41 MEPs from different political groups had sent an open letter to the French Parliament, calling to stop the unprecedented plans to automate the mass surveillance of citizens’ behaviour in public using artificial intelligence.  MEPs warned against the crippling effect of such mass surveillance of public spaces, which had never been conducted before in Europe, and which is setting a precedent. The signatories to the open letter include several negotiators of the proposed EU Artificial Intelligence Act which committed to ban biometric mass surveillance, including co-rapporteur Brando Benifei (Socialist Group).

Pirate Party Member of the European Parliament Patrick Breyer, initiator of the letter, comments:

“The French Parliament‘s decision to authorize automated behavioral surveillance in public spaces to look for ‚abnormal behavior‘ creates a new reality of mass surveillance that is unprecedented in Europe. I expect the court to annul this indiscriminate surveillance legislation for violating our fundamental rights.

Such suspicion machines will report countless citizens wrongly, are discriminatory, educate to conformist behaviour and are absolutely useless in catching criminals, as studies and experiences have proven. Step by step, like in China, social diversity is threatened and our open society replaced by a conformist consumer society.

While MEPs in Brussels are currently fighting hard for a ban on biometric mass surveillance of public spaces, the French parliament introduces it in Europe for the first time. At a unifying event like the Olympic Games, discriminatory and error-prone technology will now be used to constantly monitor people from all over the world and to blacklist them if they are noticed. This sets a dangerous precedent and deeply intrudes into the highly personal lives of every human being. The French Parliament was called upon to defend our values of freedom and diversity and to protect our open society, but it failed us. Dystopia, here we come! AI-powered surveillance has come for the first time in France and the EU, and we can expect authoritarian states to point to this precedent.

It is a classic strategy with major sporting events, analyses by Jules Boykoff in Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics (2016). “Since 2001, all the Olympic Games have served as a pretext for the deployment of new security technologies”, the academic says. In 2012, for example, the London Games led to the generalization of video surveillance in the streets of the UK capital. Also deployed on an experimental basis during the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia, facial recognition is still used today to monitor the entire Moscow population.