NICE, France — Welcome to France’s facial recognition laboratory.
With its pebble beaches and iconic Promenade des Anglais boardwalk, the Riviera city of Nice is best-known as a holiday destination favored by tourists and well-heeled French retirees.
But the city is carving out another niche under the leadership of right-wing mayor Christian Estrosi — as a testing ground for high-tech surveillance tools that are alarming digital rights activists, testing the boundaries of European privacy law and setting parents on edge.
The deployment of more than 2,600 CCTV cameras was just a first step. In February, Nice became the first French city to start trialing facial recognition tools in its streets thanks to cameras that scanned the faces of thousands of adults attending a carnival, matching their likenesses against a database of faces as part of a large-scale experiment.
Now, the regional authority that runs schools around Nice is waiting for an opinion from regulators for another first: deploying facial recognition at the entrances of two regional high schools, in an experiment that has led to howls of protest from parents, teachers’ unions and privacy activists.
As France’s CNIL privacy watchdog deliberates the question — the cameras are paused pending its opinion — Nice’s surveillance drive under Estrosi is feeding a broader debate about the growing use of facial recognition in public and its effect on civil liberties.
Championed by security hawks as a crime-fighting tool, the technology has nonetheless been banned in tech-savvy San Francisco, while earlier this month the California Senate outlawed the use of biometric tech for law enforcement amid fears of human rights violations and errors identifying women and minorities.
On the other extreme, China’s deployment of facial recognition tech is opening a window into a world of limitless surveillance. During pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong earlier this year, demonstrators sawed down towers equipped with face-scanning cameras to avoid detection by authorities. Meanwhile, Muslim Uighur minorities in the Chinese hinterland face such constant biometric surveillance that the New York Times has dubbed their region a “technological prison.”
Europe, as Nice’s example shows, has yet to make up its mind.
While the Continent last year passed the world’s most stringent privacy rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), security forces enjoy plenty of wiggle room to use facial recognition. “Experiments” with the tool have popped up recently in France, Denmark, Germany and the U.K., where a court in August rejected Europe’s first major legal challenge against police use of facial recognition.
Privacy watchdogs are paying close attention. Earlier this year, Europe’s data protection authorities warned that facial recognition entails “heightened risks” for fundamental rights and freedoms. But in the absence of tighter rules for authorities, tough-talking leaders like Nice’s Estrosi are bound to press ahead.
“Nice is one of those towns where political leaders have built their careers by embodying security, by developing city police and video surveillance,” said Laurent Mucchielli, a sociologist and director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), whose work focuses on crime and urban security.
“Facial recognition is the latest technology gadget that goes with video surveillance.”
Nice’s love affair with high-tech surveillance stretches back nearly a decade — long before the 2016 terrorist attack that killed 87 people, including the attacker.
In 2010 Estrosi, a minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, was the first mayor to create a sophisticated video surveillance system with a “urban supervision center” in a French town. A longtime advocate of facial recognition, he unsuccessfully asked for government authorization in 2016 to deploy such technologies during the European football championship, before the GDPR existed.
Today, the country’s fifth biggest city in terms of population is de facto “France’s most heavily watched city,” with more than 2,600 cameras installed on the street — one for every 128 inhabitants, and an increase of 1,111 percent since 2007.
“Technology is crucially helpful to secure the everyday life of citizens,” said an official from Nice’s town hall.
“Security does not only consist of the protection of people’s goods. It extends to a whole panel of dangers” and can help police officers find “a lost child, a person suffering from Alzheimer’s or a wanted person,” the official added.
During the carnival in February, Nice partnered with the Monaco-based cybersecurity company Confidentia, which provided its “Any Vision” software free of charge to test the effectiveness of the algorithms. Confidentia did not reply to requests for comment.
Under the GDPR, Nice did not need prior authorization from the CNIL, although the data protection authority asked for an assessment of the test once it was completed.
During the trial, one of the carnival’s entrances was equipped with facial recognition cameras that scanned the volunteers’ faces in real time and matched them with a database. More than 5,000 people agreed to participate. Minors were not allowed to take part.
According to the city’s evaluation, obtained by French newspaper Le Monde, two scenarios were tested: a case-by-case control to assess whether people were authorized to access the carnival and more general scanning to detect the presence of specific volunteers in the crowd.
The experiment was deemed a success by the city authorities. But the CNIL asked for more information to be able to properly assess the test, such as the rates of false positives and false negatives.
Estrosi declined a request for an interview. The City of Nice declined to comment on the experiment and said the mayor would provide a full assessment in the coming weeks. Estrosi is hoping to run for reelection in 2020.
For digital rights non-profit organization la Quadrature du Net, Estrosi’s surveillance drive is handing the keys of the city to tech companies, to the detriment of the citizens’ fundamental rights.
“In the name of a supposedly smarter and safer city, private companies are selling their ‘Safe City’ projects, with increased surveillance of the urban space, to elected officials who lack imagination,” said Martin Drago, a legal expert at the organization.
Nice is an “emblem” of that phenomenon, he added.
Testing facial recognition in high schools has proved a harder pill to swallow for Nice’s inhabitants.
In December 2018, the South Region, which has authority over high schools, decided to allow a facial recognition test in two high schools, one in Nice and one in Marseille. The regional body is chaired by Renaud Muselier, a former member of the European Parliament from Les Républicains, the same political party as Nice Mayor Estrosi. Muselier did not reply to requests for comment.
The project called for the installation of biometric portals in front of Les Eucalyptus high school in Nice and the Ampère high school in Marseille. Students who agree to participate in the experiment will fill in consent forms and go through the biometric portal to enter the school.
But NGOs, teachers’ unions and parents are waging a campaign to stop the deployment of the biometric portals. Several organizations filed a suit in February before a court in Marseille to annul the region’s decision. The case is ongoing.
“We are convinced that the security of our children is not the main goal, but that there are commercial and political interests,” said Laetitia Siccardi, who represents the federation of councils of students’ parents.
The experimentation was supposed to begin in September, but hasn’t started yet.
“The project is on standby while we wait for the CNIL [privacy authority],” said Philippe Albert, the principal of Nice’s Les Eucalyptus high school.
According to the region’s decision, the facial recognition test — part of a €45 million package to make high schools safer — aims to streamline student identification, fight identity theft and detect intruders. The technology is provided free of charge by U.S. tech company Cisco, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the region.
Gaëtan Feige, who is in charge of innovation at Cisco France, said the planned system was protective of students’ biometric data.
“The biometric profiles of each student who will have given their consent will be kept temporarily on a database inside the high school,” he said. The students’ personal data, which won’t be transferred to the cloud and will be individually encrypted, will be erased when they decide to stop participating in the test.
The CNIL will give an opinion about the experiment around mid-October, said Thomas Dautieu, the data protection authority’s director for compliance. “What’s at stake is to determine whether using facial recognition in high schools is justified.”
If the experiment gets the green light, it will be a first in France.
In August, the Swedish data protection authority fined a high school under the GDPR because it was using facial recognition, arguing the students’ consent could not be freely given because the school administration has a moral authority over them.
In Brussels, the European Commission suggested over the summer a future EU-wide legal instrument on goods and services powered by artificial intelligence, including facial recognition.
But on the national level, La Quadrature du Net’s Drago decries a lack of public debate about facial recognition.
“In France, there is no debate on those technologies and the impact they can have on our rights and freedoms,” he said. “The GDPR is too vast, too vague, and is not enough,” he added.
While the GDPR applies for the use of facial recognition in high schools, deploying such technology in the context of criminal offenses, for example to track down people sought by the police, requires a decree from the Council of State built on an opinion from the CNIL.
“The legal framework for facial recognition in public spaces is a bit outdated,” conceded Dautieu from the CNIL. “[Facial recognition] is a growth market and companies are providing their services, but it is high time the legislators dealt with the issue,” he said.
Unlike in California, there is so far little appetite in the French parliament for a ban on facial recognition tools. Instead, MPs have called for a legislative framework on experimentation with such technology.
For the CNRS’s Mucchielli, a legal framework is “fundamental.”
“The development of technologies of control benefits from the weight of a technology myth in the Western psyche: That technology necessarily means progress, and is necessarily more effective than humans,” he said.
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