France: Intrusive Olympics Surveillance Technologies Could Usher in a Dystopian Future

French lawmakers must reject any plans to use video surveillance powered by artificial intelligence (AI) at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Such draconian technologies of mass surveillance violate the rights to privacy and can lead to violations of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. This could result into dystopian levels of surveillance in the future, Amnesty International said today, as the proposed bill on the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games is headed for a plenary vote at France’s National Assembly.   

Re-stocking security apparatus with AI-driven mass surveillance is a dangerous political project which could lead to broad violations of human rights. Every action in a public space will get sucked into a dragnet of surveillance infrastructure, undermining fundamental civic freedoms.  

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International

The draft bill was approved by French senators in January and, if passed, it will legalize the use of a pervasive AI-powered mass video surveillance system for the first time in the history of France — and the European Union. This colossal surveillance architecture, according to French lawmakers, is “experimental” and will be used to ensure safety and security during the games. Amnesty International fears, however, that this bill will expand police powers by broadening the government’s arsenal of surveillance equipment, permanently.     

“Re-stocking security apparatus with AI-driven mass surveillance is a dangerous political project which could lead to broad violations of human rights. Every action in a public space will get sucked into a dragnet of surveillance infrastructure, undermining fundamental civic freedoms,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. 

“French lawmakers have failed to prove that this legislation meets the principles of necessity and proportionality, which are absolutely fundamental to ensuring security and surveillance measures do not threaten the rights to freedom of assembly and association, privacy, and non-discrimination. While the need for security during the event is understandable, international human rights law still applies to the Olympics. In their existing format, these blanket applications of AI-driven mass surveillance are in complete violation of the right to privacy and other rights.”  

If the AI-powered mass surveillance measures are implemented, millions of people — whether they are heading to stadiums or using public transport to access the premises of the great sporting event — will be tracked and monitored. AI algorithms scan and capture data from all people within its radius. The ubiquitous presence of CCTV cameras and drones at the Games, allowing officials to detect “suspicious” or “abnormal” activity in the crowds, is as such particularly problematic.  

“These overly broad definitions set by officials to categorize ‘suspicious’ and ‘abnormal’ activities in crowds are highly concerning. We must ask ourselves some urgent questions: Who sets the norm for what is ‘normal’? Officials who control the designations of ‘abnormal or suspicious’ activities in societies also have the power to exacerbate a chilling effect on dissent and protest, and to supercharge discrimination against communities already targeted,” said Agnes Callamard. 

The human rights threats posed by AI development and usage by private companies and public authorities in the European Union (EU) are well documented. 

“These technologies amplify racist policing and threaten the right to protest. Ethnic minorities — including migrants, and Black and Brown people — are most at risk of being targeted by certain surveillance tools, especially facial recognition systems,” said Agnes Callamard.   

This bill is not only a threat to privacy and human rights, but it also betrays the spirit of the European Union’s (EU) AI Act — a globally significant piece of legislation that aims to regulate AI and protect fundamental rights in the EU, of which France is an influential member. 

“France’s plan to use intrusive surveillance measures during the Olympic Games should serve as a wake-up call for the EU. The first-ever use of this security apparatus in the EU could ultimately warp the bloc’s AI Act legislation in a way that risks a human rights crisis through the large-scale violation of rights of millions of people, who are unknowingly and non-consensually surveilled and potentially targeted by experimental mass surveillance technologies. Through its AI Act negotiations, the EU should put an end to the use of artificial intelligence technologies used for mass surveillance and for discriminatory monitoring of civilians. We are also calling for a ban of facial recognition systems used for mass surveillance,” said Agnes Callamard. 

If France legalizes mass surveillance at the national level, one of the biggest sporting events on Earth risks becoming one of the greatest-ever violations of the right to privacy. 

Background:  

The text of the bill was approved by the Senate on January 31 and cleared a legislative hurdle on March 8 after the committee vote.     

In an open letter initiated by the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 38 civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, have called on French policymakers to reject the draft legislation on allowing invasive surveillance.  

Amnesty International, alongside a coalition of civil society organizations led by the European Digital Rights Network (EDRi), has been calling for human-rights-compliant EU regulation of artificial intelligence technologies and practices.  

Amnesty International has previously documented the use of thousands of facial recognition-capable CCTV cameras across New York City, many of which were used in communities of colour and amplified racially discriminatory policing. 

Following the London Olympics in 2012, numerous surveillance measures used for security during the event became permanent.  

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