France looks to establish legal framework to deploy biometric video surveillance

France looks to establish legal framework to deploy biometric video surveillance

French officials are looking into a legal framework to deploy public video surveillance embedded with facial recognition technology, writes RFI.

Facial recognition technology is already extensively used across the country, ranking France among top European leaders in its use.

According to President Emmanuel Macron, the goal is for France and Europe to catch up with China and the U.S., so the government has been meeting with different companies and researchers, as well as with civil liberty advocates to figure out regulations for facial recognition deployment. A hot topic for debate is the government’s interest in using it in public services and to manage security and flow of people.

The French Interior Ministry announced in October intent to deploy facial recognition for enrollment into its national digital identification program dubbed Alicem, making France the first European country to use face biometrics technology for a secure digital identity.

France’s Secretary of State for Digital, Cédric O, is hesitant about this project.

“I hope we have a calm debate on a topic that raises many irrational fears,” Cédric O told Le Parisien newspaper when asked about biometric video surveillance. “The government would like to open a test phase, of six months to a year, under supervision of civil society and researchers.”

The government has in the past mentioned the “automatic detection of people in public places,” but no details were given on how it would be deployed or how it would work under GDPR’s biometric data protection clause.

In July, the French parliament released a report recommending “a legislative framework for experimentation in order to test these systems” and establishing “a regulatory framework that best suits uses.”

“When dealing with technologies that come into widespread use very quickly, as was the case with connected devices and as we’re seeing now with facial recognition, I think experimentation and public consultation should be taken as principles,” says the report’s author Didier Baichère, an MP with Macron’s Republic on the Move (LaREM) party.

“Doing so would provide scientific and academic considerations of the technology’s impact on an evolving society,” the MP says. “Failing to do so would give companies free rein in their marketing, to get us addicted to these technologies.”

According to Baichère, while people care about the commercial use of facial recognition, widespread concern is that social and ethical considerations are jeopardized by interest in economic and security developments.

“The government is thinking of how to use facial recognition particularly because of the riots we had last year with the Yellow Vests,” says Guillaume Klossa, a former advisor to the European Commissioner for digital affairs.

“France is very advanced in these technologies, because we have very good skills in artificial intelligence and digital imaging,” he adds. “There’s a temptation to try facial recognition in France because there is large global market potential.”

In a call for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition, Klossa emphasized the importance of civil liberties as otherwise France would risk going down China’s path.

“You can see what Chinese society is doing now, and we don’t want this kind of society,” Klossa says. “Democracy needs to preserve individual privacy, and that means defining limits, but so far there is no regulatory framework for facial recognition.”

Even though France does not have a regulatory framework, the governments has still devised facial recognition-based systems such as a police database of digital images of past suspects. Other pilots include a facial recognition system called Parafe at passport checks in airports and train stations and a facial recognition software test during Carnival in Nice.

France’s data privacy regulator CNIL did not approve all projects, for example facial recognition in high schools was ruled illegal. Alicem, a smartphone app for 500 public services that compares a digital image of a user’s face with information stored in the user’s biometric identity card, was not released.

“When there is treatment of your data, your consent has to be explicit and free,” says Martin Drago, a lawyer with online civil liberties group La Quadrature du Net, which filed a lawsuit against the app in France’s highest administrative court.

“In Alicem, if you want a digital identity, you have to pass through biometric treatment of your data. You have no choice but to use facial recognition.”

Civil liberties lawyer Martin Drago is concerned about the idea of having a legal framework for experiments and thinks the entire video surveillance project would not be compliant with GDPR.

“We have a lot of companies in France that are developing facial recognition technology,” he says. “I think they need a legal framework to ensure they will not be slowed down in their experimentation. So the French government is trying to reassure them, by saying, okay, you can experiment.”

“Of course, consent is not required for the police, but you have to prove the absolute necessity of your technology,” he adds. “The fact is that in a lot of cases, facial recognition is not absolutely necessary, so it would be very difficult for the state to prove that.”

More than 80 civil society groups in France have signed a letter calling for a ban of facial recognition use in security and surveillance.

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