French politicians urge deployment of surveillance technology after series of attacks

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France has so far resisted a broad rollout of surveillance technology in public spaces. That could be about to change.

After a series of bloody attacks, right-wing politicians and a minister in President Emmanuel Macron’s government have called for increased use of surveillance technology, breaking with privacy advocates in the name of tracking would-be assailants and preventing further violence.

Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, the transport minister, said in the wake of a schoolteacher’s beheading on October 16 that he was “largely in favor” of using artificial intelligence to fight terrorism on public transport networks if individuals’ privacy rights were respected.

“The idea is to use artificial intelligence to track suspicious behavior, and it’s already being done in several countries,” Djebbari told a national radio station on Sunday.

The comment seemed to go against recommendations from France’s privacy regulator, the CNIL, which has blocked attempts to deploy facial recognition cameras in public spaces as being “neither necessary, nor proportionate” to their aims of boosting security. 

But Djebbari’s comment was in tune with growing calls from right-wing politicians, who have long pressed for increased use of technology to combat crime and terrorism as is increasingly being done in other European countries, despite concerns from regulators that live monitoring of citizens violates Europe’s privacy rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

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Valérie Pécresse, a conservative politician and president of the Île-de-France region that encompasses Paris, argued early on Friday for lifting restrictions on facial recognition.

“In our region, we have placed cameras in all transport networks. We cannot use them today to fight the risk of terrorism,” she told France Info radio. “We do not have the right to use artificial intelligence technology, which would allow us to spot suspicious movements — someone who is prowling, who is checking out locations, someone who we see is wearing an explosive belt.”

No suspect, no match

Pécresse was backed up by other members of her Les Républicains party.

In the Mediterranean city of Nice, where three people were killed on Thursday in a knife attack described as “Islamist terrorism” by Macron, the conservative mayor is also an outspoken supporter of technological surveillance. It was an experiment with facial recognition in his city — cameras deployed at the entrance of two high schools — that prompted the CNIL to rule against the initiative in October of last year.

“Because of an old-fashioned institution called the CNIL, successive governments will not stop telling me that we don’t have the right to use facial recognition, that I am not allowed to use a database [of suspected terrorist sympathizers],” said Christian Estrosi.

He added: “We can’t win the war against this enemy with the laws of peace.”

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Facial recognition tools depend on matching faces to records held in databases, and it’s unclear whether they would have been of any use to prevent either the attack in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine or the one in Nice. 

In the first example, the attacker, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee with settled status in France, did not show up in any database of suspected terrorist sympathizers, according to local media. In the second, police said they had no record of the Tunisian man who entered France about three weeks before he carried out his knife attack.

Yet as France enters a period of heightened alert for terrorism — with a fresh attack thwarted on Friday — such considerations could fall to the wayside amid calls for a crackdown. Under the GDPR, countries enjoy latitude to circumvent rules if they see a national security imperative.

So far, the CNIL has resisted such arguments. Asked for comment, a spokesperson pointed to a statement from late 2019 in which the agency called for a national debate on the use of facial recognition and other biometric technologies — a call that Macron’s government has yet to answer.

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