Drones are back, so are we

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On 20 July 2021, the government proposed a new security bill which will, among other things, authorize police drones, the same drones that our collective efforts managed to reject four times last year. The government is rushing to undermine our precious victories against police surveillance.

First victory, May 2020

In July 2019, the national police had 30 drones and 23 pilots. A year later, these numbers had increased sevenfold: 235 drones and 146 pilots. In April 2020, a call for tenders included the acquisition of 650 more drones.

At the same time, we published an overview of the drones deployed by the police on the pretext of the health crisis. In May 2020, we attacked these uses and obtained a first decisive victory before the Conseil d’État, the highest administrative jurisdiction in France: in the absence of a specific legal text to allow them, these uses are illegal.

Second victory, December 2020

Unfortunately, the police let things drag on while continuing to use their drones illegally. They waited for two months before considering a way to overturn the ban imposed by the Conseil d’État, claiming to be developing a so-called blurring system for captured images. In October 2020, we once again attacked the police surveillance of demonstrations in Paris using drones, which we had meticulously documented with your help.

In December 2020, the Conseil d’État confirmed our second decisive victory: the Parisian police were ordered to stop using drones. In addition to the fact that no legal text allowed the use of drones, the Conseil d’État pointed out an even more fundamental legal problem: “The Minister does not provide any evidence to establish that the objective of guaranteeing public safety during public gatherings could not be fully achieved, in the present circumstances, without the use of drones”.

Third victory, January 2021

In January 2021, the CNIL provided a third victory: it sanctioned the Ministry of Interior and forced it to stop any drone flight over the territory. In doing so, the CNIL confirmed the extension of our previous victories against the Parisian police to all French territory.

These first three successes were achieved against a government barely prepared for our initiatives. But beginning in October 2020 it launched a much better organized strategy, and opened the real debate with the Global Security Bill.

Fourth victory, May 2021

Fortunately, thanks to the impressive and ongoing movement of a large part of the population against the Global Security Bill, the government’s rhetoric on drones was methodically deconstructed. In May 2021, just after the French Parliament had adopted this Bill, the Constitutional Council annulled the provisions that would have allowed police drones. This was our fourth and most important victory.

This was our most important victory because it was an ideological victory. It played out in the street and in public debate rather than in courts. This allowed us to attack the heart of the model of society proposed by the government, to build a popular discourse against the police state, against a future where the population would be ruled at a distance, like objects, by militarized cameras and robots, with no possible contact or human interaction.

Fifth battle, happening now

In July 2021, the government launched its fifth battle by introducing a new and comprehensive Security Bill that includes returning drones to the police. Refusing to be questioned, the government is obstinately imposing its will by force. It no longer seeks to open a public debate or to win over opinion (indeed, it has already lost this debate several times). Instead, it reintroduced its drones within a new Security Bill, the fourth of 2021.

The MP rapporteur on the surveillance part of the Bill is Jean-Michel Mis, who has turned out to be one of the proudest and most faithful defenders of mass surveillance during the last couple of years. The Bill is on accelerated reading despite containing a broad range of provisions having nothing to do with each other – a sweeping law to finish the Macron mandate – both particularly complex and polemical (criminal liability, flat fines for certain thefts, tracking of foreign minors, cameras in custody, changes in the French data protection authority…). This is the exact same and impractical context that had prevented Parliament from discussing drones in the Global Security Bill last year.

How to organize?

Last year, a specific provision of the Global Security Bill (article 24 limiting the broadcast of police images) had lit the fuse and open the legislative debate outside Parliament. Can we repeat this accomplishment in a radically different context?

As we tried to demonstrate this summer, the health pass and drones are tools of the same technopolicing project. Could the massive opposition to the health pass, in turn, attract opposition to the drones? And for what purposes? In the event of a mass popular movement, should we hope that the Constitutional Council once again annuls this attempt to authorize the drones?

Such an hypothesis is not absurd since the government fails to correct in its new Bill the considerable legal flaws of its previous Global Security Bill (no need to show drones are needed case by case, the public is left uninformed, drones can monitor private places…). However, even if the Constitutional Council once again stood up against the drones, it seems imprudent not to seek more certain and lasting protections elsewhere.

We have seen that our victories are even more powerful when they are achieved both in courts and in the street. In the long term, to win more than only a few battles, we will need to multiply our ways of action – not to refrain from legal strategies, but also to win over people’s ideals and imagination. First we will have to look at the technological dystopia announced by our governments: facial recognition, drones, health pass, “safe city”, behavioral analysis, and the automation and dehumanization of social relations…

Once we have properly identified this nightmare, we will need to grasp it with both hands and discard it far away from our minds that it has already polluted so much. Freed this way, we can renew our collective imagination to create the future we wish for. A future that will give us the strength to multiply our ways of thinking and acting. There are so many things to undo, and so many others to build, let us take the opportunity of this fifth fight against the drones to build well beyond the sterile debate imposed by our opponents.