France Enables AI Surveillance Ahead of 2024 Paris Olympics, Alarming Privacy Activists

Critics of the 2028 games in Los Angeles worry their city may be next.

Piper French   |    May 4, 2023

Privacy activists in France warn that the security measure is an overreach that will have lasting impacts beyond the games. (iStock/pixinoo)

With the adoption of a wide-ranging law late last month, France has become the first country in the European Union to legalize AI video surveillance—just as the European Parliament attempts to regulate and even ban aspects of the technology. The justification: the Olympics are coming. 

Though it has been significantly overshadowed by French president Emanuel Macron’s controversial attempt to raise the retirement age, the legislation was passed in anticipation of the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics, for which the city expects to receive over 9 million visitors from outside the city. The law will allow artificial intelligence programs to sift through video footage collected from public security cameras placed throughout the city, in order to analyze people’s movements in real time and detect suspicious or abnormal behavior.

“That could be, for example, detecting someone running, someone who isn’t moving, who’s static in public space, a face that’s covered up, someone doing graffiti—a lot of different things,” said Alouette, pseudonym for an activist with a French digital rights group that opposes the new law, La Quadrature du Net, and who didn’t want to be named due to privacy concerns.

The law has provoked an outcry from a number of privacy activists, civil society organizations, members of the European Parliament, and lawmakers from France’s left-wing political coalition Nupes. These groups claim that it vastly expands police power, invades individual privacy and civil liberties, and paves the way for further incursions. “We have a lot of evidence that these technologies cause a lot of harm, they lead to misidentification of people and wrongful arrest,” said Mher Hakobyan, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Advisor on AI Regulation. “We have very little evidence that these technologies actually do what authorities say.” 

Organizers in Los Angeles are paying close attention to the developments in Paris, with an eye to what might happen in Los Angeles when the city hosts the 2028 games.

“This kind of surveillance technology is part and parcel of hosting the Olympic Games,” said Eric Sheehan of the group NOlympics LA. “In Tokyo, they tried to pass for years this anti terrorism law and failed because people were not down. As soon as they had the Olympics approved, they passed that law using the Olympics state of exception as their reasoning.”

These concerns around automated video surveillance are the latest in a long list of reasons why NOlympics LA and French counterparts such as Non aux JO 2024 à Paris and Saccage 2024 object to the games. While the massive international events are typically celebrated as an economic boon for host cities, they also come with extraordinary human—and, often, financial—costs, and can give politicians cover to implement policies whose effects will reverberate long after the games end. Local governments around the world are becoming increasingly wary of the impact of the Olympics, with Paris winning the chance to host in 2024 after a number of other major cities withdrew their bids. 

The French government claims that the law does not allow for the collection of biometric data, information about the physical characteristics of individual humans such as fingerprints or DNA, which Alouette, Hakobyan, and others dismiss as semantics. “They say, ‘It doesn’t allow you to identify someone,’” Alouette told Bolts. In fact, she said, AI video surveillance “can automatically recognize someone because of their physical characteristics,” that the only real difference between the recently approved technology and facial recognition is that the algorithm is focused on the body rather than the face. “To us, it is biometric technology,” she said. 

While advocates of AI surveillance technology argue that it is necessary to increase security at major sporting events—a French National Assembly member who belongs to Renaissance, Macron’s party, argued that it could have helped prevent the deadly 2016 terrorist attack in Nice—skeptics worry that it will only serve to amplify the pre-existing biases of law enforcement. Alouette says this newly legalized surveillance would come down hardest on people who spend the most time in public space, who tend to be the poorest members of society—beggars, homeless people, or migrants selling their wares in the street. 

The 2024 Olympic village will be built in Saint-Denis, a working-class area just to the north of Paris that is home to Black and Muslim immigrant populations already subject to heightened scrutiny and aggressive intervention by the French police.

“This technology is being used in a context which is already very hostile to people from certain communities or backgrounds,” said Hakobyan. “How you determine what is abnormal or problematic behavior is, of course, very ingrained and embedded in racist presumptions, but also ableist—because if a person with a certain psychosocial disability can behave in a way which from a normative point of view can be viewed as aggressive.” AI has evinced extraordinarily high rates of misidentification of people of color, for example, in some cases leading to wrongful arrests—something that was already happening long before the existence of AI technology.

“It allows [police] to hide behind an algorithm,” said Alouette, but “an algorithm learns according to the data you feed it.”

As written, Article 7, which contains the law’s video surveillance provisions, is an “experimental” measure that will expire by the end of December 2024, but two lawmakers recently issued a report recommending the use of AI video surveillance be extended beyond the timeframe of the Olympics and add in real-time facial recognition as well—which could be voted on as early as September 2023. 

All of this comes as the European Parliament attempts to significantly restrict the use of algorithmic surveillance technologies via its AI act, which represents the first global attempt to comprehensively regulate the use of artificial intelligence. European law supersedes that of its member states, meaning that France would be out of compliance with regional standards if the AI act passes. But “France is one of the most influential member states in the EU. It has a lot of say in how the act is being developed,” said Hakobyan, noting that France has also used its influence on the European Council, one of the union’s executive bodies, in “trying to water down provisions in the act, so it doesn’t go against what they’re doing nationally.” (The act will become law once the Council and the European Parliament finalize their respective stances on the act and agree on a compromise, which is expected to happen before the end of the year.)

Sheehan of NOlympics LA sees many similarities between the new French law and plans already underway for the 2028 games in Los Angeles. “The LA ‘28 Organizing Committee is excited to announce that they’re going to be using facial recognition for all tickets to the games—meanwhile, French politicians are trying to try to sneak it through,” he told Bolts. 

He also noted that a contingent of LA2028 Olympic Planning Committee officials and LAPD officers, including police chief Michel Moore, had in 2021 traveled to France to discuss both countries’ security preparations for the games with their French equivalents. “The way that it’s policed in every large city around the world is very similar,” he said. 

Sheehan, like many skeptics of the LA 2028 Olympics, foresees a repeat of the 1984 Los Angeles games, which led the LAPD to crack down on street homelessness and rapidly accelerated police militarization in the years after. “In Los Angeles, we’re already seeing evictions, we’re already seeing people being removed—literally for Olympic hotels,” he said. 

Meanwhile, while much of the debate over the law in France has centered on Article 7, Natsuko Sasaki with the anti-Olympics group Saccage 2024 says that there are other concerning aspects as well. Article 12, for example, imposes a 7,500 euro penalty and six months in jail against anyone who enters Olympic premises without a ticket, a move that has been interpreted as an attempt to quell political demonstrations. It could build on existing French laws that are already being used to crack down on public protests against Macron’s recent increase in retirement age and cost of living hikes. “It criminalizes the actions of militants…If we do something at the stadium,” she said. “And so we can’t. We can’t allow ourselves to pay this sort of fine.” 

“Our collective says that we want to cancel the games. That’s the official line. But I’m Japanese and I saw that even Covid didn’t cancel the Olympics,” she said, referencing the 2020 Tokyo games, which were postponed until 2021, then ultimately held without spectators because of the pandemic. For Sasaki, the fight against the Olympics is a marathon, not a sprint. Though Tokyo went ahead, it so soured the Japanese public on the games that the mayor of Sapporo, which had applied to host the 2030 games, recently announced that the city would delay its bid to host. “For us, after Paris, it’s finished,” she said, “but the Olympics continue.”