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French Senate seeks to protect against biometric surveillance – with biometric surveillance sandbox

French Senate seeks to protect against biometric surveillance – with biometric surveillance sandbox

The French Senate Law Commission has released a contradictory report into biometrics that seeks both to ensure France does not become a country of mass biometric surveillance, while recommending a three-year regulatory sandbox for testing biometric mass surveillance systems. A period which would encompass the Paris 2024 Summer Olympic Games.

Unanimously adopted by the Senate Law Commission ahead of publishing, reports Public Sénat, the “information report” was led through its eight-month drafting mission by three senators who are members of the Commission.

In the publicly available summary of ‘Biometric recognition in public spaces: 30 proposals to eliminate the risk of [becoming] a surveillance society’ (‘La reconnaissance biométrique dans l’espace public: 30 propositions pour écarter le risque d’une société de surveillance’), seems contradictory from the outset:

“In October 2020, the Senate Law Commission established an information mission on facial recognition, a technology that is developing rapidly thanks to learning algorithms and that is polarizing public opinion between supporters of a moratorium relating to all biometric technologies, which would be by nature detrimental to freedoms, and those who highlight their significant potential benefits.

“At a time when legislation on artificial intelligence is being drafted at the European level, it is essential to build a collective response to the use of biometric recognition technologies in order not to be, in the years to come, overtaken by industrial developments.”

Proposal 1 sets the scene for consulting the French public to find ways to persuade them to accept more biometric surveillance:

“Undertake a national survey aimed at evaluating the perception of biometric recognition by the French, identifying the use cases to which they are more or less favorable and identifying the sources of better acceptability of this technology.”

Proposal 2 to 6 are the “red lines” to remove the risk of becoming a surveillance society.

Yet there are exceptions for almost every prohibition for biometric surveillance proposed: no categorization by ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation – except for scientific research; no analysis of emotion – except for scientific research; no live facial recognition in public spaces – except for law enforcement in certain cases.

Then by Proposal 7, the gloves come off:

“Set in an experimental law, for a period of three years, the conditions under which and the purposes for which biometric recognition may be the subject of new experiments by public actors or in public spaces and provide detailed annual reports to Parliament on its application, the last of which no later than six months before the end of the trial period.”

Proposal 8 would require submission to an ethics board before Proposal 9’s wish to then educate the French people of the benefits and risks of three years of surveillance. By Proposal 11 the senators are suggesting private actors can submit their biometric surveillance technologies for public places for authorization by the CNIL, the data privacy regulator.

The list continues towards the ever-greater surveillance society the report ostensibly seeks to avoid. Proposal 16: “Create, on an experimental basis, a legal framework allowing the use of biometric authentication technologies to secure access to certain events and control the flow [of people], based on people’s consent.”

The report accepts that using biometric recognition to control access to a site without a non-biometric alternative would be terrible, but Proposal 17 brings in the exception exactly for that situation “on an experimental basis.” Just to be sure, Proposal 22 opens up real-time biometric monitoring of streets to secure events and sensitive sites.

Adding in the European context, the proposals support the creation of a European authority to assess the reliability of algorithms for biometric recognition and to certify the lack of bias. Taking this up a step, they also intend to “Provide the authority in charge of artificial intelligence with an image database at the European Union level in order to give it the means for its action.

“Feed this database through several mechanisms inspired by the proposal for a European Union regulation on European data governance. Set up suitable mechanisms for informing citizens and provide for the possibility of requesting the withdrawal of their data from the database at any time.”

The report does include safeguards throughout such as tackling bias in AI, and strengthening the regulatory powers of the CNIL. However, the proposals for a three-year period of experimentation, and the explicit mentioning of the 2024 Olympics as an event needing protection, reveal the direction of thinking for the Law Commission of the upper chamber of the French government.

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