30 proposals to eliminate the risk of a surveillance society

Prohibit real-time facial recognition in public space while allowing a series of strictly supervised experiments over three years

The Senate considers that it is becoming increasingly urgent to “build a collective response to the use biometric recognition technologies in the public space so as not to be overtaken by industrial developments in the years to come”. The debates seem to oppose only those who would like to ban everything to those considering that biometric recognition should be generalized in the public space. Its deployments on the national territory, very few, “are carried out today in France without a specific legal framework or collective ethical reflection”says the report.

Among the biometric techniques intended to “recognize an individual from his physical, physiological or behavioral characteristics”, that of facial recognition raises the most debate. First of all, facial recognition should be differentiated according to whether it is used to authenticate or to identify. Both operate from a person’s face “first captured and transformed into a computer model called a template” which is then compared, thanks to an artificial intelligence algorithm, either to the pre-established template used by the person presenting himself – and facial recognition is used here to authenticate himself – or to other templates listed in databases – and facial recognition is then used to identify (see The rem n°52, p.106).

Facial recognition for authentication is widely used, for example as a feature to unlock a smartphone or, since 2010, by air, sea and rail passenger screening services that use “Parafe” (for Rapid Automated Passage of external borders), software which, without any data being stored, compares “the image contained in the electronic component of the travel document presented and the photo taken live of its holder inside a passage lock”. “Facial recognition implemented as part of a real-time remote identification system in publicly accessible spaces” is one of the red lines that would allow“remove the risk of a surveillance society”unless it is deployed in the context of particularly supervised experiments.

The only large-scale experiment was tested, on a voluntary basis, during the Nice carnival, between February and March 2019. Concerning the uses carried out without the consent of the people, the Internal Security services (National Police, National Gendarmerie and customs) are increasingly using a reconciliation mechanism using photographs in the criminal record processing file (TAJ), which is only possible “in the context of a judicial inquiry, under the direction and control of a magistrate”. This facial recognition tool to identify people in the TAJ file was used 498,871 times by the National Police and around 117,000 times by the National Gendarmerie in 2021. For North Senator Marc-Philippe Daubresse, whose comments are reported on the Public Senate website, “We cannot enter into a surveillance society with Big Brother everywhere. And on the other hand, we have to accept that we can experiment with a certain number of use cases which can be linked to terrorism, the protection of large sports sites, or the need for the police to check that the person in front of her is not registered in the delinquency file”.

The report notably recommends prohibiting the use of real-time remote biometric recognition in public spaces. Except for very limited exceptions, in particular in the context of legal investigations related to a serious offence, or in a “administrative framework, with a view to securing major events presenting a particular sensitivity or particularly sensitive sites in the face of a possible terrorist threat”and “in an intelligence framework, in the event of imminent threats to national security”.

The senators therefore call for their wishes “the development of an experimental law to create debate and determine which uses of facial recognition are relevant before perpetuating, by a second law, those of them that would be”. Although Cédric O, then Secretary of State for the Digital Transition, indicated during a hearing before the Senate in March 2022 that the security features of the 2024 Olympics may not include real-time facial recognition in the public space, the question is always asked. As for the European Commission’s new rules on artificial intelligence, made public in April 2022, they also reaffirm the ban on the use of real-time biometric identification systems in public spaces, while also providing , some exceptions.

Biometric recognition in the public space: 30 proposals to eliminate the risk of a surveillance society, Senate, information report, Marc-Philippe Daubresse, Arnaud de Belenet and Jérôme Durain, May 2022

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30 proposals to eliminate the risk of a surveillance society


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