The Senate wants a law on face recognition in public space

The Factfinding Mission on Face Recognition in Public Space presented its proposals on 11 May. She draws a portrait of the tool, where the ban should be the rule, and invites the management to seize the subject before the 2024 Olympics.

It is time to address this issue, which is not a technical issue but a political one.It is with these words that François-Noël Buffet introduced the presentation of an information report on biometric recognition in public space, composed of an information mission consisting of Senators Marc-Philippe Daubresse (LR), Arnaud de Belenet (Centrist Union) and Jérôme Durain (PS) Understand: France needs to adopt a legislative arsenal on face recognition, although Europe already offers some guarantees through the General Protection Regulations (GDPR) and that European legislation on artificial intelligence is being drafted. Senators are proposing the creation of a “experimental law to create debate and determine the use of biometric recognition that could be relevant and effective;“.

Where is face recognition in France?

The rapporteurs state that long-term use in France is limited and mainly due to public authorities, with the exception of certain uses of consent authentication that have already been implemented, e.g. to unlock mobile phones or open a bank account remotely. Since 2012, the police and gendarmerie have been authorized to use facial recognition to identify persons registered in the TAJ, the file for processing criminal records. Thus, investigators can, if they have a photograph of the perpetrator, compare it to the eight million images found in the file. The tool is set to provide a maximum of 200 responses with a minimum match rate of 40%.

Face recognition is also used as part of the Parafe system (rapid crossing at external borders), which often occurs at airports, but not only. France has 217 Parafe air locks in its territory, mainly in Orly, Roissy, Paris-Gare du Nord, but also in Marseille, Nice or Bordeaux. The public authorities also gave a stick in the water with Alicem, a mobile authentication project carried out by the Ministry of the Interior, which was finally abandoned in April 2022. It was replaced by the Service de Guarantee digital identity (SGIN), less intrusive, which will allow authentication to public or private organizations through a mobile application and an electronic identity card.

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The last few years have been marked by several experiments carried out by local authorities. The senators cite in particular what was done during the carnival in Nice in 2019 on a voluntary basis, which Cnil had not opposed. On the other hand, in October 2019, it had rejected experiments with implementing a “virtual portal” for face-to-face access control in two Provencal colleges. Other experiments were performed at Roland Garros or at the Vélodrome stadium in Marseille, with which Cnil had been reluctant.

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Senators insist on strict usage limits

It would be easier to state what we approve as use cases than what we prohibit“, Jérôme Durain comments to the press from floor 206 of the Senate. Therefore, if they are in favor of an experimental law for a period of three years, the senators who have studied this delicate matter want to draw red lines for the use of facial treatment Thus, they state that these tools should not be used to establish a “Chinese notation” according to the Chinese model, or that biometric recognition is used to categorize individuals according to their origin, their sexual orientation, or their religious beliefs, e.g. emotion recognition systems should also be banned, apart from these the others could be approved with rare exceptions, such as for scientific research.

In general, the report indicates that the rule should be to ban the use of real-time biometric remote sensing in public spaces, and especially during demonstrations on public roads and around places of worship. Thus, the surveillance cameras placed in the streets or the drones deployed during demonstrations that had caused outcry during the vote on the Global Security Act are particularly targeted. Several exceptions are nevertheless mentioned: in the context of judicial investigations, to facilitate the arrest of a perpetrator who has committed a serious offense, or to find victims of a disturbing disappearance, but also in the context of security nationals, to ensure major events, or sensitive locations against a possible terrorist threat, or finally in an intelligence context, in the event of an imminent threat.

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Finally, these experiments should be regularly evaluated by a single, independent scientific and ethics committee, whose reports will be published. Along with these experiments, information available to all about biometric recognition techniques should be provided. An a priori and a posteriori control system should also be established: permits from the prefect in administrative police cases or from a judge in judicial police cases and permission from Cnil to use these tools by private actors. The latter would also see its capacity strengthened.

And now ?

With the delivery of this information report, senators now hope that the executive will address this issue. A topic recently set aside by Emmanuel Macron, who would have considered it “explosive”, especially during the election period. The rapporteurs also hope that French legislation will make it possible to influence the next European AI regulation. And a deadline is emerging: the Paris Olympics. “The rapporteurs believe that the application of artificial intelligence to images from video surveillance constitutes a scale change in the use of video surveillance, which is likely to violate individual freedoms, requires an explicit legislative basisit is stated in the report. This base is all the more urgent as the deployment of systems to detect abandoned packages or suspicious movements in a crowd will be necessary to ensure security at the time of the 2024 Olympics.

The Senate Law Commission believes that it is now “urgently needed to build a collective response to the use of biometric recognition technologies in public space in order not to be overtaken by industrial development in the coming years;“. She believes that it is urgent for the Folketing to raise the issue in order to”reject the model of a surveillance society by drawing red lines“. A reflection must then be made on the cases of the use of this biometric recognition”which are multiple and potentially limitless, some of which can be legally experimented with, while others should be excluded, all within the framework of an appropriate system of control and accountability;“.

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