Privacy advocates argue such security infrastructure could become permanent.
BY LAURA KAYALI
MARCH 23, 2023
PARIS — France’s AI-powered array of surveillance cameras for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics cleared a final legislative hurdle on Thursday.
The French government wants to experiment with large-scale, real-time camera systems supported by an algorithm to spot suspicious behavior, including unsupervised luggage and triggering alarms to warn of crowd movements like stampedes, for the mega-sports event next year.
In a sparsely-attended chamber, French members of parliament approved the controversial bill after more than seven hours of heated debate. The text can still be challenged before the country's top constitutional court.
Last week, a group of about 40 European lawmakers — mainly left-wing — asked their French counterparts to vote against the text. They warned in a letter that “France would set a surveillance precedent of the kind never before seen in Europe, using the pretext of the [2024 Paris Summer] Olympic games.”
In the past few months, the plan was also met with intense pushback from digital rights NGOs, including France’s La Quadrature du Net, as well as international groups such as Amnesty International and Access Now. Besides privacy concerns, they pointed out a potential conflict with the EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act, which is currently under discussion in Brussels and could limit biometric surveillance.
The government argues that algorithmic surveillance cameras are necessary to ensure the safety of the millions of tourists expected to visit Paris next year. During the debates Wednesday evening, lawmakers from President Emmanuel Macron's party claimed AI-powered cameras could have prevented the 2016 Nice terror attack by spotting the truck before it could drive into the crowd. They also said it could have helped avoid the security fiasco at the football Champions League final last summer.
Opposition left-leaning MPs, however, replied that AI-powered mass surveillance was unprecedented in democratic societies and dangerously threatened civil liberties. They also feared that the measures, pitched as temporary, could in fact become permanent. History has shown, they argued, that Olympic Games in countries such as China have been used to test invasive security infrastructure that was never dismantled afterward.
But in a country now more concerned about the rise of the retirement age, opposition lawmakers failed to gather enough support against the text — or even interest. Only 73 MPs actually showed up to vote — out of 577.
This article has been updated.