PARIS, France — A proposed French law for the 2024 Paris Olympics that critics contend will open the door for privacy-busting video surveillance technology in France and elsewhere in Europe passed an important hurdle on Tuesday with lawmakers overwhelmingly voting for it.
The bill will legalize the temporary use of so-called intelligent surveillance systems to safeguard the Paris Games, which run next year from July 26-Aug. 11, and the Paralympics that follow. The systems combine cameras with artificial intelligence software to flag potential security concerns, such as abandoned packages or crowd surges. Human operators would decide whether action is needed.
French authorities insist the surveillance wouldn't involve facial recognition. Supporters of the bill argue that the technology could help avert disasters like the deadly crowd crush that killed nearly 160 people during Halloween festivities in South Korea in October.
“It’s not about recognizing ‘Mr. X’ in a crowd,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told National Assembly lawmakers last week when they were debating the measures. “It’s about recognizing situations.”
The Senate overwhelmingly approved the draft in January, by 245 votes to 28. The National Assembly followed suit Tuesday with a 400-93 vote that the French government's sports minister, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, hailed as “an essential step.”
The draft is now slated for further fine-tuning by assembly members and senators before its final adoption, expected in April.
Digital rights watchdog groups argue that France will violate international human rights law by becoming the first of the European Union’s 27 countries to legalize AI-powered surveillance, even if just temporarily. The bill says the technology can be used on an experimental basis to the end of 2024 to safeguard sporting and cultural events in France that are particularly at risk of being targeted by terror attacks.
The technology’s use “risks permanently transforming France into a dystopian surveillance state” and “will lead to an all-out assault on the rights to privacy, protest, and freedom of assembly and expression,” said Mher Hakobyan, an Amnesty International adviser on AI regulation.
“It has also been well-documented that hostile surveillance technologies are disproportionately used to target marginalized groups, including migrants and Black and brown people,” Hakobyan added.
Even though the draft law says the cameras won't use facial recognition, they are still liable to scrutinize physical traits including people's postures, walks and gestures, critics contend. Opponents also are concerned that the technology risks zeroing-in on people who spend a lot of time in public spaces, such as the homeless. The bill also clears the way for the technology's use with cameras mounted on drones.