France becomes the first European country to legalise biometric surveillance

EDRi member and Reclaim Your Face partner La Quadrature du Net charts out the chilling move by France to undermine human rights progress by ushering in mass algorithmic surveillance, which in a shocking move, has been authorised by national Parliamentarians.

For three years, the EDRi network has rallied against biometric mass surveillance practices through our long-running Reclaim Your Face campaign. Comprised of around eighty civil society groups and close to 100 thousand European citizens and residents, our movement has rejected the constant tracking of our faces and bodies across time and place by discriminatory algorithms. We have called for lawmakers to protect us from being treated as walking barcodes, and the European Parliament is now poised to vote to ban at least some forms of biometric mass surveillance at EU level.

In contrast, EDRi member and Reclaim Your Face partner La Quadrature du Net (LQDN) charts out the chilling move by France to undermine human rights progress by ushering in mass algorithmic surveillance, which in a shocking move, has been authorised by national Parliamentarians.

The article 7 of the Law on Olympic Games’ organisation has been adopted by the national parliament, “Assemblée Nationale”, formalising the introduction of Algorithmic Video-Surveillance in French Law, until December 2024. Due to the fuss regarding the retirements reform and following an expedited-as-usual process, French government succeeded in making acceptable one of the most dangerous technology ever deployed. Using lies and fake storytelling, the government escaped from the technical, political and judicial consequences in terms of mass surveillance. Supported by MPs from the governmental majority and far-right parties, algorithmic video-surveillance has been legalised backed by lies, undermining always more the democratic game.

  • The lie of biometrics: The government repeated and wrote down in the law that algorithmic video-surveillance is not related to biometrics. This is entirely false. This technology constantly identifies, analyses, classifies the bodies, physical attributes, gestures, body shapes, gait, which are unquestionably biometric data. LQDN explained it (see note or video), tirelessly told rapporteurs in the Sénat and Assemblée Nationale, the representatives, along with 38 other international organisations and more than 40 MEPs (members of European Parliament) who recently called out the French government. Despite this, the French government stood with its lies, concerning technical as well as legal aspects. France is once again violating EU’s law, consecrating its title of Europe surveillance’s champion.
  • The lie of usefulness: The government used the Olympic games as a pretext to achieve faster a long-running agenda of legalising these technologies. In fact, this choice is just keeping to a “tradition” widely observed of States profiting from international mega-events to pass exceptional laws. The government convinces people of the necessity to “spot suspicious packages” or “prevent massive crowd movements”. These events suddenly became the top priority for the Ministry of the Interior and deputies, who make the security of the Olympics just about these issues, which were rarely identified as a priority before. Also, these issues can also be resolved by human competency instead of these technologies, as LQDN have demonstrated in this article. Algorithmic video-surveillance acceptance relies on a well implanted myth according to which technology would magically ensure security. In this way, these opaque technologies are deemed useful without any honest evaluation or demonstration.
  • The technical lie: Algorithmic video-surveillance’s main application is to identify behaviors, pre-defined as “suspicious” by the police. Arbitrary and dangerous by design, the way these algorithms work has never been explained by the government: because it is not understood by most of those who decide Whether because of inexcusable incompetence or assumed diversion, in the end, the level of the parliamentary debate was extremely low, and certainly not what was expected given the dramatic issues raised by these biometric technologies.Helped by Guillaume Vuillemet and Sacha Houlié, both from the governmental party and some other MPs, what dominated the parliamentary debate was a minimisation rethoric directly inspired from surveillance companies’ marketing narratives, along with lies and technical nonsense. It clearly shows the incapacity of the Parliament to discuss technical questions. Moreover, society should legitimately fear the future, considering how Parliamentary representatives are unable to apprehend the threats of emerging technologies.

As police brutalities overwhelm people’s screens, and as the police, armed with clubs, assures the after-sales service of the most unpopular reforms, the increasing police surveillance is part of a global strategy to stifle any contestation.

Such tactics allowing the State to transform the reality of its surveillance prerogatives must be denounced. Particularly in a context where the meaning of words are deliberately twisted to make people believe that “surveillance is protection”,“security is freedom”, “democracy means forcing them through”. It is necessary to expose and counter this fake democratic game, and to question the extraordinary powers given to the French police. No need to talk about a “Chinese” dystopia to realise the height of the stakes. One can look at France’s history and present political climate to take the measure and understand the twenty years long security drift: more cameras, surveillance and databases, while depoliticising social stakes, and a loss of sense amongst politicians in charge. As a result, the Olympics’ law debates shed the light on the political disorientation of decision-makers, unable to question these security issues.

This first legalisation of automated video-surveillance is a winning step for the French security industry. Those who’ve been asking for years to test their algorithms on the people, to improve them and sell the technologies worldwide, are now satisfied. Soon, Thales, XXII, Two-I and Neuroo, will be allowed to sell biometric softwares to other states, like Idemia sold its facial recognition software to China. The startup XXII couldn’t even wait the law to be voted to loudly announce it raised 22 million euros to become, in its own words, “the European leader” of algorithmic video-surveillance.

The institutions in charge of preserving liberties, such as the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), are totally failing. Created in 1978 and gifted with real and efficient counter powers to document the governmental surveillance ambitions, it is now the after-sales service of governmental regulations and carefully helps companies to implement “good” surveillance, in order to preserve the industry’s economic interests, without any consideration about collective rights and liberties.

This first legal authorisation creates a precedent and opens the gates to every other biometric surveillance technology: algorithmic audio-surveillance, facial recognition, biometric tracking, and more.

LQDN won’t give up the fight and will keep denouncing all of the government’s lies. They will be present as soon as the first experimentations will start and document the inevitable abuses these technologies lead to. They will find ways to contest them in courts and will fight for these experiments to remain temporary. And they’ll keep refusing these technologies and the technopolicing they incorporate, by fighting at the European level to obtain their interdiction.

Left-leaning French lawmakers are planning to challenge the adoption of this bill in the country’s top constitutional court.

This was first published by La Quadrature du Net. Read it in French.

Protect My Face: Brussels residents join the fight against biometric mass surveillance

The newly-launched Protect My Face campaign gives residents of the Brussels region of Belgium the opportunity to oppose mass facial recognition. EDRi applauds this initiative which demands that the Brussels Parliament ban these intrusive and discriminatory practices.

Eight Brussels-based organisations working across human rights and anti-surveillance have come together to launch Protect My Face. This regional campaign focusing on Brussels calls for an explicit ban on facial recognition. Among the NGOs responsible for this action are two of Belgium’s leading human rights groups: EDRi member the Liga voor Mensenrechten, and our Reclaim Your Face partner the Ligue des droits humains. For many years we have worked together to call for a ban on biometric mass surveillance across Europe – a demand which now sees unprecedented support from politicians in the European Parliament.

As one of the official seats of the European Parliament, Brussels is in some ways the beating heart of democracy in Europe. Yet with almost no transparency or oversight, people around the region have been the victims of secretive, disproportionate and rights-violating uses of facial recognition for many years. Federal police subjected people to unlawful facial recognition at the Brussels Zaventem airport in 2017 and 2019. And despite a warning from the police oversight board, the federal police also carried our several searches using the controversial Clearview AI facial recognition software in recent years.

Through the long-running Reclaim Your Face campaign, EDRi and our partners have long argued that facial recognition and other forms of biometric mass surveillance, which use our faces and bodies against us, pose an unacceptable risk to our rights and freedoms. They create the possibility to permanently track and monitor us in public spaces, and can particularly affect our right to demonstrations because of how they create a ‘chilling effect’. Biometric mass surveillance also poses a high risk of discrimination, being even more harmful for racialised people, queer people, homeless people and other minoritised groups.

This new petition is the first step in a regional campaign which gives the power to Brussels residents to demand action from the Brussels Parliament to protect our faces. In particular, the petition calls for the Parliament to ban facial recognition in public places and for identification purposes, and to grant the NGOs a hearing before the Parliament. This is an important chance to put a stop to these discriminatory, intrusive technologies of mass surveillance.

Are you a resident of the Brussels region? Join the fight against biometric mass surveillance by signing the new petition by the Protect My Face coalition:

ReclaimYourFace is a movement led by civil society organisations across Europe:

Access Now ARTICLE19 Bits of Freedom CCC Defesa dos Direitos Digitais (D3) Digitalcourage Digitale Gesellschaft CH Digitale Gesellschaft DE Državljan D EDRi Electronic Frontier Finland Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights Homo Digitalis IT-Political Association of Denmark IuRe La Quadrature du Net Liberties Metamorphosis Foundation Panoptykon Foundation Privacy International SHARE Foundation
In collaboration with our campaign partners:

AlgorithmWatch AlgorithmWatch/CH All Out Amnesty International Anna Elbe Aquilenet Associazione Luca Coscioni Ban Facial Recognition Europe Big Brother Watch Certi Diritti Chaos Computer Club Lëtzebuerg (C3L) CILD D64 Danes je nov dan Datapanik Digitale Freiheit DPO Innovation Electronic Frontier Norway European Center for Not-for-profit Law (ECNL) European Digital Society Eumans Football Supporters Europe Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) Forum InformatikerInnen für Frieden und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung Germanwatch German acm chapter Gesellschaft Fur Informatik (German Informatics Society) GONG Hellenic Association of Data Protection and Privacy Hellenic League for Human Rights info.nodes irish council for civil liberties JEF, Young European Federalists Kameras Stoppen Ligue des droits de L'Homme (FR) Ligue des Droits Humains (BE) LOAD e.V. Ministry of Privacy Privacy Lx Privacy Network Projetto Winston Smith Reporters United Saplinq Science for Democracy Selbstbestimmt.Digital STRALI Stop Wapenhandel The Good Lobby Italia UNI-Europa Unsurv Vrijbit Wikimedia FR Xnet

Reclaim Your Face is also supported by:

Jusos Piratenpartei DE Pirátská Strana

MEP Patrick Breyer, Germany, Greens/EFA
MEP Marcel Kolaja, Czechia, Greens/EFA
MEP Anne-Sophie Pelletier, France, The Left
MEP Kateřina Konečná, Czechia, The Left

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