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French parliament votes for biometric surveillance at Paris Olympics

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Image Credits: Paul Sawers / TechCrunch

European Union lawmakers are on track to ban the use of remote biometric surveillance for general law enforcement purposes. However that hasn’t stopped parliamentarians in France voting to deploy AI to monitor public spaces for suspicious behavior during the 2024 Paris Olympics.

On Thursday the parliament approved a plan to use automated behavioral surveillance of public spaces during the games, ignoring objections from around 40 MPs who had penned an open letter denouncing the proposal. The vote followed an earlier approval by the French Senate. (Via Politico.)

The 2024 Olympics Games are due to take place in Paris between July 26 and August 11.

The EU’s AI Act, an incoming risk-based framework for regulating applications of AI, includes a prohibition on the use of ‘real-time’ remote biometric identification systems in publicly accessible spaces for the purpose of law enforcement — with, in the original draft proposal, exceptions allowed for searches of specific potential victims of crime (such as missing children); for the prevention of “a specific, substantial and imminent threat” to life or physical safety or a terrorist attack; or for identifying a specific perpetrator or suspect of a criminal offence referred. Although MEPs have been pushing for a more comprehensive ban.

Critics of the French plan suggest it goes far further than the limited law enforcement exceptions allowed for in the draft proposal — leaning on unproven AI to identify something as vague as suspicious behavior.

Commenting in a statement, Patrick Breyer, an MEP in the European Parliament with the Pirate Party, hit out at use of what he dubbed an “error-prone” and intrusive technology, saying: “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.”

The AI Act was proposed by the European Commission almost two years ago but remains under negotiation by the bloc’s institutions — with discussion on the file complicated by divisions and ongoing tech developments, such as the rise of general purpose AIs like OpenAI’s GPT-4 (with general purpose AIs not explicitly included in the original proposal, underlining both how fast-moving the AI field is and, therefore, the challenge for regulators to create effective, future-proofed frameworks to regulate applications of the tech). 

This means the full sweep and detail of the future pan-EU law is not yet settled. And even in a best case scenario — i.e. if the bloc’s lawmakers hash out a speedy compromise — it still may not be in application in time for the Paris Olympics. Nonetheless, the French move looks awkward, to say the least — suggesting the bloc is on course for a new era of legal friction between national security priorities and EU protections for fundamental rights. 

France is one of several EU Member States that has repeatedly refused to bent to EU rules on general and indiscriminate data retention — countering that the activity is essential for national security — despite the bloc’s top court issuing a number of rulings that have found fault with such bulk data collection regimes. And future waves of legal challenges over state misuse of powerful AI tools, for general and indiscriminate surveillance, could well be speeding down the pipe.

In the meanwhile, the French government’s plan to blanket the Paris Olympics in AI-powered surveillance could still face a challenge through the country’s constitutional court. So it remains to be seen whether attendees at the 2024 summer Olympic Games will face being behaviourally assessed by algorithms.

The CNIL, France’s data protection watchdog, has been dialling up its attention on artificial intelligence in recent months — setting up a dedicated department to work on the technology in January, in preparation for the incoming EU AI Act. So it could take a close interest in the government’s plan. (We’ve reached out to the CNIL with questions about its views on the plan and will update this report if it responds.)

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