Real-time facial recognition is still not allowed in France. However, many experiments are already taking place and companies are positioning themselves, with the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024 in their sights, with a market of seven billion euros.
Imagine: on July 26, 2024, the Olympic Games in Paris begin. A compact crowd throngs in front of the entrance gates of the Stade de France. At the south entrance, one line seems to be advancing faster than the others. Indeed, some spectators agreed to have their faces scrutinized and analyzed by cameras in order to access the scene more quickly. This is called the facial comparison.
This hypothetical future is brewing in France. Several experiments of this type have already taken place or are scheduled. With a central question, that of the consent of people.
In 2020, in France as in Europe, real-time facial recognition on public roads is not authorized. Since 2012, only a posteriori recognition has been permitted, in particular by the police, using the criminal record processing file (TAJ). According to a report by the National Assembly published in 2018, more than 18 million people, including 8 million with photos, are listed in the TAJ.
It is the Cnil (National Commission for Informatics and Freedoms) which monitors and gives an opinion for highly supervised experiments. “There is a set of rules that apply, confirms Patrice Navarro, lawyer at the Hogan Lovells firm. There must be consent of the people, and this is for a particularly strong and proportionate reason of public interest or public safety. But several exercises that come close to facial recognition have already been performed.
In Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) in February 2019, during the carnival, an Israeli software made it possible to identify supposed S files. They were actually volunteers among hundreds of consenting people, who provided their photo, who knew they were filmed and recognized face to face.
Another attempt in the same city caused controversy. This time, it was about analyzing the emotions of the passengers of a tram, without identifying them, in order to anticipate potential problems. The test ultimately did not work due to a technical problem with the image transmission.
In Cannes (Alpes-Maritimes), during confinement, the town hall wanted to check whether the population was indeed wearing a mask when going to the market. For this, it called on a service provider, the start-up Datakalab. A device also installed in the Châtelet-Les Halles RER station in Paris.
For Datakalab director Xavier Fischer, it wasn't about identifying people, but just counting people wearing masks. But the Cnil did not see it that way. She felt that people could not exercise their right to object since they did not know that their face was being analyzed. Result: in Cannes the operation ended naturally with the deconfinement, and in Châtelet, the Cnil put an end to the test.
In Metz (Moselle), progress in this area seems more concrete. After spillovers during a 2016 Ligue 1 football match against Lyon, supporters were banned from the stadium. As authorized by the Larrivé law on the fight against hooliganism, FC Metz has set up a file of these ultra supporters with their photos, and has invested in facial recognition software, ready to be used if necessary.
Fans have wondered if this software has not already been tested on them. This hypothesis was first put forward by journalist Olivier Tesquet, in his book On the trail (Premier Parallèle, 2020). These supporters then made the connection with strange instructions given on a match night. “Many of them had to take off their glasses, caps or scarves at the entrance to the stadium”, says Pierre Barthélémy, lawyer for the National Supporters Association.
Did we really test real-time facial recognition that night? Guillaume Cazenave, director of the Metz company Two-I, which sold the video surveillance equipment to FC Metz, says he does not know it. “We are not system operators, he defends himself. To our knowledge, it has not been activated. “
On the club side, we firmly deny having done a test. The director of FC Metz, Hélène Schrub, assured in writing to the investigation unit of Radio France that facial recognition had neither been decided nor tested, even if she recognizes that the project exists and that the material allows it.
In Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône), the Canebière is equipped with around fifty smart cameras. They do not formally recognize people, but identify very specific situations. “This project was implemented in 2019, details Félix Treguer, founding member of the association La Quadrature du net. An automated analysis algorithm recognizes suspicious behavior and events, and automatically triggers alerts and follow-ups in the monitoring center “.
Concretely, it is a question of identifying abandoned objects, individuals on the ground, taggers or the destruction of street furniture. “Once the cameras have filmed and the videos are archived, the police can use filters, adds Martin Drago, lawyer for La Quadrature du net, that is to say, to spot faces or silhouettes, to identify people “.
Some municipalities have tried to experiment with other devices, such as sound recognition for example. This is the case in Saint-Étienne (Loire) where the subsidiary of a weapons company in 2019 proposed to the town hall to pair cameras with microphones to identify abnormal noises in a sensitive area. “Sound sensors can trigger an alert that allows automatic drones to be sent to see what's going on, describes Martin Drago, then with the option of sending a human patrol. “
This project was however retested by the CNIL. She considered that there was a risk of invasion of privacy, as the city did not provide enough guarantees on whether or not people's voices could be recognized.
For journalist Olivier Tesquet, it is through these various experiments in the municipalities that the ground is being prepared. “These municipalities have turned into safe showrooms, he analyzes. In Valenciennes, Huawei offers CCTV cameras to the municipality. In Nice and Marseille, the American Cisco approached the Paca region for the installation of facial recognition gates at the entrance to high schools. The problem is, there is no competitive bidding, and locals are woefully under-informed on these issues. “
Beyond these temporary, limited or delayed experiments, the law still allows facial recognition in certain cases.
The Home Office is currently developing a digital identity application for smartphones, Alicem. Connected to FranceConnect, it must allow, by facial comparison, to open an account to renew his papers remotely (gray card, driver's license, digital identity card, etc.). This technology is already present on many devices to unlock them.
But is it really safe? “To fight against identity theft, we have facial recognition, but also what is called recognition of the living, reassures Jérôme Letier, director of the National Agency for Secured Titles. We ask people to move, to be able to distinguish a simple photograph or a rough montage of the real face of the person.
The development of the application could be authorized because it only works with the consent of the user: if you use Alicem, it means that you accept the principle. For Jérôme Letier, the ethical questions raised by real-time surveillance in the street do not arise here.
The issue of consent, which is therefore essential, is being studied by the authorities in order to equip sports or tourism infrastructures with legal facial recognition equipment. Mainly concerned: the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024, as well as airports. Idemia has already carried out boarding tests on flights with volunteers.
The general conditions of sale of tickets could contain a consent clause which makes it possible to set up a system of differentiated queues, thanks to an individual QR code which incorporates a transcription of the identity photo, to save time and no longer be obliged to present their papers at each stage. Guillaume Cazenave, from the company Two-I, reassures: “If the person does not give their consent, and it is their right that is important to respect, there will always be a queue with human and manual screening.” A call for tenders has officially been launched by the National Research Agency.
Overall, this new market is valued at seven billion euros in France. The 2024 Games, where security is at stake, as well as the Men's Rugby World Cup in 2023, should be laboratories for these technologies. “The French industrial sector in terms of safety is in the process of positioning itself”, assures Félix Treguer, sociologist and founder of La Quadrature du net.
Companies like Atos, Dassault Systèmes, Capgemini, are in contact with the Ministry of the Interior, via a committee, to win public contracts around the OJ of 2024.
The CNIL does not rule out giving a favorable opinion on facial recognition for the Olympic Games in Paris. “It is possible, indicates Marie-Laure Denis, president of the CNIL, to the investigation unit of Radio France. Either on the basis of real consent, or by a text which authorizes the use of these practices for a limited period and within a defined scope. All of this is foreseeable and doable. Once again, it is a question of reconciling the protection of the French and the protection of their freedoms, which is also important. “
As France cannot test this future equipment on a large scale on its territory, some companies take the opportunity to export equipment abroad, where regulations in this area are more flexible. The company Idemia, for example, equips the services of the FBI in the United States, or even public spaces in China.
The Interior Ministry, through the Paris police headquarters, is testing devices banned in France abroad. Still in the perspective of the Olympics, they experimented with a large-scale recognition solution, with Idemia. “The CNIL has issued an objection to this experiment in France, says Félix Tréguer. As a result, the Home Office made an agreement with Interpol and the Singapore government so that it could take place at a city-state transport hub. “
However, many studies show that many of these solutions are unreliable. In the United States, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has demonstrated biases and misidentification, especially racial. “I took the test on my face, and many times I was presented as a black person, is surprised the journalist (white) Olivier Tesquet. Some people were categorized by extremely stigmatizing adjectives, such as the designation 'negroid' (sic). In terms of resolving algorithmic biases, we still have a long way to go. “
For lawyer Patrice Navarro, the problem is that the algorithms are “trained” on databases that mainly contain photos of Caucasian men. “Hence the presence of many false positives and biases linked to ethnicity or gender, which proves that today these technologies are not yet fully developed, explains the lawyer. We capture poor quality images of people moving, who may wear caps, sunglasses …
All of this can work very well if it's properly framed, and it can be of great interest. But it still has to work.
Other criteria are tested in order to cross-reference them with information from the face, such as the iris, the ear, as well as body movements and gait, characteristics that are difficult to conceal from cameras.
More and more voices are being heard to express their fears about a possible general registration of the population. With the implementation of the digital identity card, mandatory in Europe by 2021, the risk of a global network exists, according to Olivier Tesquet: “The American investigation site The Intercept, revealed that around ten European countries, at the instigation of Austria, are considering pooling their facial recognition databases, a bit like we already exchange police files within the framework of Europol. ”
The fear of anti-facial recognition is that the technology will eventually mesh camera networks. SNCF, on the French Riviera, is already equipped with smart cameras. However, according to Martin Drago of La Quadrature du net, they are perfectly compatible with others: “We will be able to have an interweaving of the different tools linked to different markets of communities, public or private companies, with at the end a rather impressive algorithmic surveillance network of the public space.”
Hence the warning issued by MP MoDem Philippe Latombe, member of the National Assembly's working group on constitutional rights and freedoms in the digital age. According to him, such a tool placed in the wrong hands could drift towards mass surveillance for purposes other than security: “Everyone thinks that we could use facial recognition to find, for example, a person with Alzheimer's who has disappeared. 'authorization to make the comparison. Gradually, they enlarged the file until they had the entire population, to give them social credit scores. The use will create the need, and the need will create a new use. It's an endless chain. “
For the time being, the GDPR (European Data Protection Regulation) offers protection to European citizens, and in France, the CNIL oversees its application. But the RGPD does not have a regulator, and the CNIL only intervenes afterwards, while at the same time, the equipment manufacturers intend to step into the breach, thanks to the support of local elected officials receptive to their demand, with considerable financial stakes.