This is an appeal of unprecedented scale which was filed on Saturday September 24 with the Cnil (National Commission for Computing and Liberties): more than 15,248 people gathered to contest more or less the entire techno-security system deployed by the government for the past 20 years.
For almost six months, the association La Quadrature du Net has been calling to collect the mandates of citizens wishing to oppose what it has called the “technopolice”a term designating video surveillance, algorithmic surveillance devices or even facial recognition.
In total, three complaints were prepared by La Quadrature du Net and symbolically filed on Saturday evening at the end of its “Technopolice” festival, which was held in Marseille. The approach is in fact particularly ambitious. The complaints indeed attack several of the pillars of digital surveillance that have invaded our cities in recent decades.
The first simply aims to make “remove all cameras deployed in France”, and thus put an end to video surveillance. For this, the complaint before the Cnil is based on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which imposes a certain number of legal bases on all data processing. Any collection of data must therefore respond to a legitimate interest or fulfill a mission of public interest.
However, as the complaint recalls, the effectiveness of video surveillance in the fight against insecurity has never been demonstrated. It has even been denied by several university studies. The Court of Auditors itself, in a 2020 study on municipal police, had not found “no overall correlation […] between the existence of video protection devices and the level of crime committed on the public highway, or even the rates of elucidation”. In 2021, another study, this time commissioned by the gendarmerie, concluded that “The use of CCTV recordings is an unprofitable resource of evidence and clues for investigators”.
“However, in law, it is forbidden to use surveillance cameras without demonstrating their usefulnesspleads La Quadrature on the site of its Technopolice project launched three years ago. As a result, all state-licensed cameras in France therefore appear to be illegal. »
“In our arguments, we rely on a decision rendered four years ago by the Administrative Court of Appeal of Nantes which concerned the municipality of Ploërmelexplains to Mediapart Noémie Levain, lawyer and member of La Quadrature. It had confirmed the cancellation of a prefectural authorization to install video surveillance in the city on the grounds, in particular, that no link had been established between it and the drop in delinquency. It was neither necessary nor legitimate and therefore illegal. We take up this reasoning to extend it to all of France. »
“To install a video surveillance system, the city must request authorization from the prefect, who must normally decide on the purpose, location, duration…further details the lawyer. But, in fact, this prefectural authorization is just formal. It is always granted. Which, for us, makes these acts illegal. »
“To bring this to the national level – the decision of the Nantes Administrative Court of Appeal being local –, we emphasize that the Minister of the Interior is jointly responsible for data processing with the municipalities, via the prefects who depend on himexplains Noémie Levain. Moreover, there is a very strong incentive on the part of the government aimed at pushing the municipalities to equip themselves via financial aid. These generally represent 60-70% of the financing, often paid by the Interministerial Fund for the Prevention of Delinquency (FIPD). »
A possible dismantling of the network of video surveillance cameras, even partial, would have the consequence of rendering inoperative another aspect of the “technopolice” : algorithmic video surveillance. This consists of the use of “smart cameras” and software capable of analyzing images to identify suspicious behavior. In the absence of cameras, “who are the material support”underlines La Quadrature, these software would logically become obsolete.
Criminal history processing and facial recognition
The second complaint of the association concerns the processing of criminal records (TAJ), a file in which is registered any person involved in a judicial investigation, whether implicated, just suspected or even victim. The TAJ is accessible to the police and gendarmerie forces and to the intelligence services, as well as in the context of administrative investigations carried out during recruitment for certain sensitive positions.
“We attack first of all its disproportionexplains Noémie Levain. This file contains more than 20 million records, with no checks and a lot of errors. Many cards have no connection with an offence. And in recent years there have been more and more testimonies of police taking photos of the identity cards of demonstrators. »
Through the TAJ, the complaint also targets facial recognition. Indeed, the decree of May 7, 2012 which gave birth to it, by merging two other files, specifies that the “photograph comprising technical characteristics allowing the use of a facial recognition device”.
And since then, on this sole legal basis, the police have multiplied the use of facial recognition. According to a Senate report issued in May 2022, 1,680 facial recognition operations would thus be carried out daily by the police forces.
“The TAJ is a gateway to facial recognition that was opened by a simple little sentence from the 2012 decreepoints out Noémie Levain. We say that this little sentence is absolutely not enough. We need a big debate. Especially since with the explosion in the quantity of images from video surveillance, and those from social networks, we have changed scale. This omnipresence of cameras in our society raises fears of mass video surveillance. »
The “honest people file”
Finally, the third complaint concerns the file of secure electronic documents (TES). Created in 2005, it initially incorporated the personal data of passport holders, then their biometric data with the introduction of the electronic passport. In October 2016, a decree extended its scope to identity cards, despite extensive mobilization by civil society.
As its opponents pointed out at the time, as identity cards are renewed, it is the entire French population whose biometric data will eventually be recorded in the TES, thus creating a gigantic “honest people file”. This data is also stored centrally. The device had even been criticized by the Cnil and the National Agency for the Security of Information Systems (Anssi).
The extension of the TES file to identity cards was at the time justified by the fight against identity theft and the trafficking of false papers. However, according to La Quadrature du net, “this risk, which was already extremely low in 2016, has completely disappeared since a chip – which contains the face and fingerprints – is now present on passports and allows the same function to be performed in a decentralized manner”.
In summary, La Quadrature considers that reading the data recorded in the chip is sufficient to authenticate the holder and that a centralized file is now useless and therefore no longer has a legal basis. In addition, she points out, the presence of the photos raises fears that the TES file may be used by the police. “Creating a file with the photos of all French people can have no other purpose than facial recognition”points out Noémie Levain.
If currently law enforcement agencies do not normally have access to it, the temptation is indeed great to interconnect the TES file with other police files. On the occasion of a parliamentary report on the files made available to the security forces delivered in October 2018, the authors pointed out that they had been “suggested” during the hearings, “to go further in making the marital status of the people in question more reliable, to create a central biometric application which would be interconnected with the identity data of the TES file”.
It remains to be seen what fate the CNIL will reserve for these complaints. The commission has indeed limited powers vis-à-vis the files of the police and intelligence services. For a long time, it had a power of appreciation a priori government projects that were to be submitted to it, an assessment validated by it through a “compliant opinion”. But this was withdrawn in 2004 and, from now on, the work of the Cnil on the processing of sovereign data is limited to a role of advice and support for the government.
“Since 2004, the Cnil has lost a large part of its powersnotes Noémie Levain. It can issue opinions, reports that are sometimes very critical… But the government can always overrule it. The idea of this complaint is that it goes to see the practices. One of the problems is the opacity of police practices. The Cnil has the powers of investigation to see what is happening. After his conclusions, it will be a matter of political will on his part. We will see if it will establish a balance of power. »
“La Quadrature often hits on them, but we believe that there are people at the Cnil who do things rightcontinues the lawyer. There, we bring him the elements to see what is happening. Our goal is to make noise, to influence public debate. Especially since the Olympic Games will be an opportunity to experiment with a whole host of technologies. We have already seen the CNIL make good decisions. With this complaint, we give him the key to do so. »