France’s parliament considers use of drones by police, again

“Traces of an explosive device have been found, indicating that this was not a reconnaissance drone. We have found parts of an aerial bomb,” Banožić told reporters at the crash site after the bulk of the drone had been dug out of the ground. [Lobachad/Shutterstock]

French members of parliament will start examining on Tuesday (14 September) a bill on criminal responsibility and internal security, intended to provide a long-awaited legal framework for the use of drones by law enforcement agencies.

Perhaps the second time will be the charm. The Constitutional Council rejected the provisions of the law “for a global security preserving liberties” on drones in May, and the government has since sent a new version to the Parliament. Justice Minister Éric Dupont-Moretti is expected to appear at 5 pm before the Law Commission to present the new draft.

“The bill on criminal responsibility and internal security provides for additional guarantees compared to the provisions of the comprehensive security law that were censured (…) in order to protect public freedoms and individual liberties,” the text’s co-rapporteur, Jean-Michel Mis, an MP for the ruling La République en Marche, told EURACTIV.

In its decision of 20 May, the Constitutional Council dismissed the provisions on drones saying “the legislative branch has not ensured the necessary balance between the constitutional objectives of preventing public disorders and tracking down perpetrators and the right to privacy”.

While the substance of the new bill pursues the same objectives, several additional guarantees have been added to the text.

The new articles specify the form that the prefectural authorisations required for the deployment of drones will take.

They will have to indicate clearly the “department responsible for the operations”, the purpose pursued with a “justification of the need to use the device”, the technical characteristics of the necessary equipment, the number of cameras deployed, the public information methods, the desired duration of the authorisation” (which cannot exceed a maximum of three months, which can be renewed) as well as the geographical area concerned.

“A double mechanism of quotas is foreseen at the national and local level. The image conservation period cannot exceed seven days”, Mis stressed. This period was 30 days in the so-called “Global Security” bill. This new bill nevertheless specifies that this period may be extended “for the needs of reporting the case to the judicial authorities within this period “.

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Public freedoms

Anne-Sophie Simpere, an advocacy officer at Amnesty International France wondered why “we need drones”. “There is little justification in the law as to why we cannot even achieve these objectives, of public security, by other less intrusive means,” she told EURACTIV.

Simpere was not happy that “the list of cases in which drones can be used remains very broad”.

This list includes preventing attacks on people and property, gatherings likely to cause serious public order disturbances, terrorism, traffic regulation “for the sole purpose of maintaining public order and security” – in addition to the previous bill – and border surveillance.

“We have a series of laws that are quite detrimental to public freedoms,” Amnesty’s Simpere added, naming the Global Security Law, Law on Republican Principles, Terrorism and Intelligence Law, NDLR.

“Without data, we are going to introduce a surveillance system with many more risks and guarantees that are much more difficult to implement,” Simpere argued, drawing a parallel with the video surveillance cameras deployed in France, on which the Court of Audit has repeatedly pointed to for their excessive cost and their insufficiently measured effectiveness.

Whether drones are necessary or not, the bill fills the “legal vacuum” that led the Council of State, in May 2020, to order the government to cease the use of drones when checking the citizens’ compliance with health regulations. The Council of State based its decision on the grounds that “the use of these drones involves the processing of personal data”.

Among the elements that the ”Internal Security” bill takes up from the ”Global Security” bill, are the prohibitions for drones to record sound, analyse images with facial recognition tools, and cross-reference this data.

Beyond drones per se, the text addresses video surveillance devices in police custody, on-board cameras, as well as issues of criminal liability and the protection of law enforcement officers.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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