French National Police Use of AI-Powered Video-Surveillance Subject to Criminal Law

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Investigative media Disclose has just revealed that for years, knowing that it was totally illegal, the French National Police force has been using the automated video-surveillance solutions from the Israeli company Briefcam. This technology includes a “facial recognition” option which, according to Disclose, is “actively used” by the police.

For almost five years now, through the Technopolice campaign, La Quadrature du Net, along with groups across the country, has been documenting the illegal use of algorithmic video-surveillance by municipal police forces. There were strong suspicions that it was also being used by the National Police, as we mentioned in our report published last February.

Today’s confirmation is no less shocking. Not only because of the scale of the technology’s deployment, with Briefcam licenses covering several departments (administrative subdivisions). But also in view of the cover-ups by senior civil servants and politicians of this highly sensitive project. It’s worth remembering Gérald Darmanin who, last year in the run-up to the debates on article 10 of the Olympic Games law, acknowledged that there was no legal basis for the police use of these automated analysis technologies.

Artificial intelligence is bound to radically transform the political economy of video-surveillance, which is why we reject the solutions such as Briefcam’s. Even in the context of judicial investigations, the government should at the very least provide a clear legal basis for its use.

Equally shocking is the widespread sense of impunity revealed by this affair. Executives at the General Directorate of the National Police, as well as successive ministers, deliberately maintained secrecy for fear of controversy, knowing prefectly well that they were outside the law.

Criminal law is clear: “The collection of personal data by fraudulent, unfair or unlawful means is punishable by five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 euros”. (cf. art. 226-18 and -19 of the French penal code).

In addition, all civil servants are required to immediately report any offences of which they are aware to the public prosecutor (article 40 of the Code of Criminal Procedure). Lastly, Disclose adds that to fund the renewal of Briefcam licenses, “the police hierarchy dipped into the ‘drug competition fund'”. This could be construed as misappropriation of public funds.

These recent disclosures are extremely serious, and the facts they uncover still ongoing. They highlight the blatant inadequacy of institutional checks and balances, from the the Data Protection Authority (CNIL) to the Police’s Internal Review Board (IGPN), which is symptomatic of a systemic crisis in the rule of law.

Recent events provide another sad illustration of this gross inaction: the CNIL simply issued a “call to order” to two ministries following the misappropriation last spring of a government database to send 2 million propaganda messages designed to manipulate public opinion on the topic of pension reform.

Impunity must stop. The Technopolice must be stopped!