Lawmakers vote on Paris Olympics law amid surveillance fears

PARIS – A French proposed law for the Paris 2024 Olympics, which critics say will open the door to privacy-busting video surveillance technology in France and elsewhere in Europe, faces a major hurdle on Tuesday as lawmakers vote on it.

The bill would legalize the temporary use of so-called smart surveillance systems to protect the Paris Games, which will be held from July 26 to August 26 next year. 11 and the subsequent Paralympics. The systems combine cameras with artificial intelligence software to detect potential security concerns such as abandoned packages or crowds. Human operators would decide if action is required.

French authorities insist the surveillance would not involve facial recognition. Supporters of the bill argue the technology could help avert disasters like the deadly crowd that killed nearly 160 people during Halloween celebrations in South Korea in October.

“It’s not about, ‘Mr. X’ in a crowd,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told lawmakers at the National Assembly last week as they debated the measures. “It’s about recognizing situations.”

The Senate approved the bill overwhelmingly in January by a vote of 245 to 28. If Tuesday afternoon’s National Assembly follows suit, the bill is expected to undergo further refinement by Assembly members and senators ahead of its final adoption, which is expected in April.

Digital rights watchdog groups argue that France will break international human rights law if it becomes the first of the 27 European Union countries to legalize AI-powered surveillance, albeit temporarily. The draft law provides that by the end of 2024, the technology can be used on a trial basis to secure sporting and cultural events in France, which are particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The use of the technology “risks permanently turning France into a dystopian surveillance state” and “will lead to a full-scale assault on the rights to privacy, protest, freedom of assembly and expression,” said Mher Hakobyan, an Amnesty International adviser on AI regulation.

“It is also well documented that hostile surveillance technologies are being used disproportionately to target marginalized groups, including migrants and blacks and browns,” Hakobyan added.

Although the draft law says the cameras will not use facial recognition, they will still be able to examine physical characteristics such as people’s posture, gait and gestures, critics claim. Opponents also fear the technology risks focusing on people who spend a lot of time in public spaces, such as the homeless. The bill also paves the way for the use of drone-mounted camera technology.

During last week’s National Assembly discussions on the bill, opposition MP Sandra Regol argued that it would make Olympic goers “guinea pigs” for AI-enabled surveillance.


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