Champions League clashes revive appetite for facial recognition technology in France

The Mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, has revived the debate on facial recognition after images of violent clashes outside the Stade de France during the Champions League final on Saturday (28 May) put the French government in the spotlight. EURACTIV France reports.

“I would like us to finally put a stop to what the CNIL [France’s data watchdog] is forbidding us to do, this sort of dusty institution that forbids the use of facial recognition,” Estrosi told broadcaster Europe 1 on Tuesday.

In 2016, the city of Nice was subject to a truck attack, in which a driver deliberately targeted  crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day. 86 people died as a result of the incident, and a further 458 were injured.

Facial recognition in France

France currently bans facial recognition technology in public spaces for the processing of biometric data, according to CNIL rules based on the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

French and EU legislation allow for some exemptions, notably for “important public interest reasons”, though the identification of fans at the entrance to a stadium is not among them.

In February 2021, the CNIL issued a warning to FC Metz football club for having experimented with a facial recognition system to screen people banned from stadiums as part of anti-terrorism campaign. According to the data watchdog, the club did not have the right to base its system on people’s biometric data, which is considered sensitive information.

“It is difficult for the police to arrest 1,000 or 2,000 people, at the risk of injury or even death. But on the other hand, if they are identified by facial recognition, if they are banned from the stadium and if we can go and pick them up in the early hours of the morning at their home to take them into custody, artificial intelligence will play its role to the full”, explained Estrosi.

The mayor added that a “large number” of sports event organisers and club presidents would be in favour of it.

Similar technology was used during the 2017 Champions League final in Cardiff between Juventus and Real Madrid.

Local law enforcement later reported, however, that of the 2,470 alerts issued by the facial recognition programme, only 173 were found to be justified – a 92% false-positive rate.

“We have the software, the startups, the major industrialists, including French ones like Thales, which today have very sophisticated systems to guarantee individual freedoms,” said Estrosi, adding that he did not want to see a surveillance state where presidents can monitor citizens through their phones, but simply further guarantees of security for the population, and calling for a “real debate” on the matter.

A European debate

This “real debate” could well take place in Brussels and Strasbourg, as the Council of the EU and the European Parliament are currently examining the European Commission’s proposal to regulate artificial intelligence – in particular, to harmonise facial recognition rules and fill legal gaps at EU level.

The proposal’s article 5 prohibits “the use of ‘real-time’ remote biometric identification systems in publicly accessible areas for law enforcement purposes”, with some exceptions.

In October 2021, EU lawmakers adopted a resolution pledging for a complete ban of this technology, without exceptions, by an overwhelming majority.

Conservative lawmakers from the European People’s Party (EPP), however, submitted several amendments to soften the resolution, proposing to exchange a moratorium on the deployment of facial recognition in public spaces for a promise to “ensure respect for fundamental rights”.

Others support the EPP too; some lawmakers view the technology as a great opportunity to prevent and combat delinquency and crime.

“We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Belgian Christian-Democrat lawmaker Tom Vandenkendelaere told his colleagues in the plenary.

The ban, and the accompanying derogations, could also be a sticking point between member states currently in the process of agreeing on the text under the French EU Council presidency.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Nathalie Weatherald]

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