France to use CCTV to monitor mask-wearing on public transport

French Minister Delegate for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari even went as far as to delete his tweet announcing the arrival of these "intelligent cameras" that "allow people to be counted without individual identification". [Unsplash/Davyn Ben]

France has authorised the use of surveillance cameras to monitor whether passengers on public transport are abiding by the requirement to wear masks. EURACTIV France reports.

Public transport operators will now be able to monitor how many passengers are observing the rule after a government decree published last Wednesday (10 March) allowed the “use of intelligent video to measure the rate of mask-wearing on transport.”

The initiative is controversial. Last May, the firm Datakalab offered its intelligent mask detection system to the Parisian public transport authority for use in its cameras installed in trains.

However, France’s data protection watchdog CNIL called out the practice, saying it was not governed by any legal framework and was therefore illegal.

This “uncontrolled development presents the risk of generalising a feeling of surveillance among citizens, of creating a phenomenon of habituation and trivialisation of intrusive technologies, and of generating increased surveillance, likely to undermine the proper functioning of our democratic society”, CNIL said at the time. The company backed down the same month.

However, just last week, Datakalab announced again that it would offer its services to the government.

French Minister Delegate for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari appeared embarrassed by the u-turn and even went as far as to delete his tweet announcing the arrival of these “intelligent cameras” that “allow people to be counted without individual identification”.

An illegal decree? 

La Quadrature du Net, a group defending digital rights and freedoms, in a press release  slammed the decree as an “authoritarian offensive” that was both illegal and anti-democratic.

The group says the decree contravenes France’s Internal Security Code, which limits the possible purposes for which images can be captured, as well as Article 5 of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which deals with the processing of personal data.

A legal argument that Xavier Fischer, the director of Datakalab, dismissed. He explained to EURACTIV France that there was “a difference between facial recognition and video analysis” and that, in the case of the technology his company has developed, which is “compatible with the RGPD”, the images are processed locally and are not stored: “in a few tens of milliseconds, the image no longer exists”.

He also stressed that he wanted to develop a “sovereign” tool, in response to a growing need for which human resources alone are not enough.

La Quadrature du Net has also criticised the government for abusing its prerogatives and bypassing parliament to pass the decree.

Moreover, the group has called on the Senate to reaffirm the ban on facial recognition, after it rejected an amendment earlier this month aimed at generalising this practice via video surveillance cameras in the framework of the so-called global security bill.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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