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PARIS — France is seeking to massively expand its arsenal of surveillance powers and tools to secure the millions of tourists expected for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.
Among the plans are large-scale, real-time camera systems supported by an algorithm to spot suspicious behavior, including unsupervised luggage and alarming crowd movements like stampedes. Senators on Wednesday will vote on a law introducing the new powers, which are supposed to be temporary, with some lawmakers pushing to allow controversial facial-recognition technology.
The stakes are high: The government badly wants to avoid “failures” like the ones that dented its reputation during the Champions League final last summer, and the trauma of the 2015 Paris terror attacks still looms large over the country.
But the plans are already causing an uproar among privacy campaigners. “The Olympic Games are used as a pretext to pass measures the [security technology] industry has long been waiting for,” said Bastien Le Querrec from digital rights NGO La Quadrature du Net, who’s leading a campaign against algorithmic video surveillance.
The French government already backtracked on deploying facial recognition after lawmakers within President Emmanuel Macron’s majority party raised concerns. It was also forced by the country’s data protection authority and top administrative court to build in more privacy safeguards.
For now, the law would allow for “experimentation” with the surveillance systems, and the trial is supposed to end in June 2025 — 10 months after the sports competition wraps up.
Critics, however, fear the law will lead to unwanted surveillance in the long term.
One key question is what will happen to the AI-powered devices once the Olympic Games are over, especially since the legislation mentions not only sports events but also “festive” and “cultural” gatherings. In the past, Le Querrec warned, security measures initially designed to be temporary — for example, under the state of emergency that followed the 2015 attacks — ended up becoming permanent.
Whether the tech survives the Olympics will depend on how the final law is written, according to Francisco Klauser, a professor at the University of Neuchâtel, who has written about surveillance and sporting events.
“In the history of mega-events, there is always a legacy,” he said. Countries staging major events are under “extraordinary circumstances and time pressure” that often mean systems get deployed that otherwise “would have been debated much more heavily,” he added.
Case in point: IBM helped Rio de Janeiro install a “control room” in view of the 2016 Olympics, and the tech is still operational to this day, Klauser said.
For the 2024 Olympics, France already has the cameras but will need to buy the software to analyze footage, an official from the interior ministry told POLITICO.
Philippe Latombe, an MP from the centrist Macron-allied party Modem, said that French companies such as Atos, Idemia, XXII and Datakalab, among others, would be able to provide such tech. The lawmaker is co-chairing a fact-finding mission on video surveillance in public spaces.
After the Senate votes on the law to allow “experimentations” with the surveillance systems, the legislation will go to the National Assembly, and lawmakers in both chambers are expected to fight over the balance between privacy and security.
Time is already running out, Latombe warned, as algorithms will need to be trained on datasets for months before the Olympics kick off.
Elisa Braun contributed reporting.