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French police may have been unlawfully using facial recognition since 2015

French police may have been unlawfully using facial recognition since 2015

An investigation by Disclose has turned up emails showing that French national police have been using facial recognition for eight years, despite a national prohibition on use of the biometric systems by law enforcement.

“In 2015, law enforcement authorities secretly acquired surveillance video image analysis software from the Israeli company BriefCam. For eight years, the Ministry of the Interior has concealed the use of this tool, which enables facial recognition,” says the Disclose report. Even more damning: “This has become a habit.”

BriefCam provides algorithmic video surveillance and analytics for security and intelligence. That its biometrics software is in use by French police is no secret to the firm: an article in Euractiv quotes BriefCam Europe Sales Director Florian Leibovici confirming that its facial recognition-enabled surveillance and monitoring tools are running in the police stations of more than 100 French municipalities. However, Leibovici tells Disclose, “we have very little information on how our tool is used.” The software has also been licensed by police in Canada, the U.S., Israel and elsewhere.

Problem is, under the French Informatics and Freedom law it is illegal under most circumstances to use any biometric identification system, process any biometric data, or implement any facial recognition techniques. Nor does the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) allow the processing of biometric data. So, the pertinent question is, exactly what have police been using BriefCam for?

The video content analytics platform promises to help users “accelerate investigations,” “attain situational awareness,” and “derive operational intelligence” through the analysis of video metadata. Per its website, “The unique fusion of Video Synopsis and deep learning solutions enable rapid video review and search, face recognition, real-time alerting and quantitative video insights.”

Disclose alleges that authorities initiated the use of facial recognition without completing necessary data impact assessments, and without judicial oversight. It quotes an email in which a senior French police official highlights how BriefCam captures “features such as license plates, faces,” but also “more ‘sensitive’ features,” such as “gender, age, adult or child, size.”

Specific uses of facial recognition by the French police have not been confirmed. However, even with judicial oversight, any generalized scanning of faces in a public setting constitutes mass surveillance and is a breach of data privacy law. And Disclose contends that BriefCam’s biometric software remains in use across France, with easy access and a simple user interface for officers in participating districts, allowing for broad, one-to-many facial matching with a few clicks.

The ban on facial recognition by law enforcement does allow for a couple of rare exceptions. Quoting a 2023 parliamentary report, Disclose says facial recognition can be used in investigations “punishing a disturbance to public order or an infringement on property, individuals, or state authority,” with judicial oversight, or at border control to compare the faces of travelers with biometric passports. The rules are set to become looser with the approach of the 2024 Paris Olympics. The question facing French law is, do the rules matter?

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