Covid-19: what if France had caught the surveillance virus?

Since the start of the pandemic, the use of surveillance tools has been trivialized, raising many questions. Despite the censorship of the Constitutional Council, the Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin wishes to propose a new text allowing the police to use drones.


“In France, everyone has the right to use [des drones], except the police. Find the mistake !” Interviewed Friday May 21 by The Parisian, the Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin did not hide his annoyance. The object of his anger? The almost complete censorship by the Constitutional Council, the day before, of article 47 of the proposed law on “global security”, which aimed to regulate the use of drones by the police, experienced during the first confinement.

Video surveillance, use of telephone data, drones … In France, the Covid-19 pandemic was an opportunity for certain companies and for public powers to try out technologies that can be used for surveillance purposes. Before, sometimes, calls to order by the law.

Surveillance technologies have been adapted to the health context

“National Gendarmerie, access to the beach is prohibited, please leave the premises” in the region of Ajaccio (Corse-du-Sud), “Stay at home, you cannot stay in this area” in Paris, “Please respect a safety distance of at least one meter between each person” in Nice (Alpes-Maritimes)During the implementation, in March 2020, of the first confinement decided to limit the risks of the spread of Covid-19, the police did not hesitate to take off in front of the press drones responsible for broadcasting by loudspeaker health instructions.

“This is a fairly good example of technology that has benefited from the health crisis to establish its commonplace”, underlines Olivier Tesquet, journalist specializing in surveillance issues at Telerama and author of the book State of technological emergency (ed. Premier Parallèle, 2021).

Not necessarily expected in this area, Orange donned the epidemiologist costume to study the behavior of the French during the crisis. In partnership with Inserm, the telephone operator used the data sent by its 22 million customers to analyze the movements of French people during periods of restrictions. Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange, was able to announce a few days after the introduction of the first confinement that around 20% of the inhabitants of Greater Paris had left their region. “France is not China. We only work on aggregated and anonymized data ”, he then wanted to clarify, denying everything “Individual tracing” French citizens.

The pandemic has also been an opportunity for artificial intelligence professionals to reorient their products for health purposes. Known for having experimented outside of any legal framework with a facial recognition system at the Saint-Symphorien stadium in Metz (Moselle), the start-up Two-i has modified its video surveillance analysis programs, usually offered for security purposes, to allow them to check if the safety distances between two people were well respected, explained in March 2020 its director to the AEF agency.

In Paris, the RATP had embarked on a similar experiment: six cameras provided by the company Datakalab were installed in May at the Châtelet-Les Halles station, in order to know in real time the exact number and the percentage of people correctly masked. . This company will also equip the AccorHotels Arena with smart cameras detecting the wearing of a mask on Saturday during the Indochina test concert organized in the capital.

Limits recalled by judges and institutions

Very often, these experiments came up against the legislation in force. A few weeks after their installation, the RATP had to disconnect its smart cameras installed in Châtelet-Les Halles after an unequivocal opinion issued in June 2020 by the National Commission for Informatics and Freedoms (Cnil), French gendarme of personal data . The CNIL underlined in particular the lack of“Specific normative framework” to smart cameras.

The use of drones by the police has also been criticized on numerous occasions. In the spring, then in December 2020, the Council of State ordered the Paris police prefect, Didier Lallement, to stop flying these devices in order to enforce health rules or to monitor demonstrations on the public highway. . Again pointing out the lack of a regulatory framework, the country’s highest administrative court considered that it had not been demonstrated that the police could not fulfill their duties. “Objective of guaranteeing public safety (…) in the current circumstances, in the absence of recourse to drones”.

Considering that the text did not present sufficient guarantees in terms of the right to respect for private life, the Constitutional Council censured, on May 20, a large part of article 47 of the proposed law on “global security” , which organized the use of drones by the police, in particular during demonstrations.

“Our law runs after technology”

Returned to the ropes by the CNIL or the courts, the government has not however given up using these monitoring tools. On the contrary: the choice was to adapt the law to these technologies. A decree published in March thus authorized the installation of smart cameras to measure the rate of mask wearing in public transport. The CNIL, which had opposed their deployment nine months earlier, this time gave the green light, the decree only authorizing operators to use these devices for the purposes of statistical evaluations and passenger awareness.

Annoyed by the decision of the Wise Men to oppose the deployment of police drones, Gérald Darmanin has already announced his intention to persevere. “The CNIL prevents us from flying drones which are extremely effective in the fight against drugs, motorized rodeos and the control of public order”, thundered the Minister of the Interior in the columns of Parisian.

This political will to adapt the legal framework to these tools does not surprise Olivier Tesquet. “Our law runs after technology: we endorse uses, and the parliamentary debate only aims to legalize illegal tools”, asserts the journalist, who recalls that the law on intelligence adopted after the 2015 attacks authorizes several intrusive technologies already used by the services, including the very controversial “Imsi-catchers”, which mimic the operation of a mobile telephone relay to intercept communications within a given perimeter.

Towards an Orwellian society?

Abroad, several examples show that political power may be tempted to use surveillance technologies, first presented as useful in terms of health, for repressive or even political ends. This is particularly the case in Singapore, where the contact tracing application TraceTogether requires its users to identify themselves by name, unlike its French cousin TousAntiCovid. After several months of deployment in the territory, the local Minister of the Interior announced that the data generated by the application could be used during police investigations, as reported. Point in January.

In Moscow, the authorities used the facial recognition system connected to 100,000 surveillance cameras in the city to verify compliance with quarantine rules during the spring 2020 containment. This software is now used to question participants in the demonstrations a posteriori. of support for the opponent Alexeï Navalny, writes Release.

Should the progressive legalization of technological surveillance tools collectively make us fear a slide towards an Orwellian society, in which a “Big Brother” would know everything about our actions? The author ofState of technological emergency nuance : “I think we are moving more towards a society with a multitude of ‘little brothers’: if drones are flying in the sky, cameras are in the streets and software is organizing our lives, then behaviors change, especially in the sky. ‘public space. We then come to watch each other, each vouching for the respect of the rules. ” The defenders of public freedoms, for their part, keep in their sights this deployment of technologies and its possible abuses.


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