Video surveillance: Big Brother is watching you

Men poring over a wall of screens, projecting live images of what’s happening on every street corner? It’s a cliche of urban surveillance, as well as a necessary part of modern urban life.

It’s also an important topic of debate in 2019: is there a need to increase surveillance in our cities and, consequently, to make use of both video surveillance and artificial intelligence?


Data protection – the main obstacle

In its excellent report of 20 December 2018, Le Monde asked some key questions addressing the debate. It influences the activities of vendors in the market. As well the local government bodies are engaged in digitally transforming citizen safety. How far can you go in using these images?

How can you respect individual liberty while analyzing the social behaviors of a city’s inhabitants without their knowledge? Is it possible to envisage apps that allow everyone to film a dramatic event and send it to the police. The city of Nice has already experimented with this method.

It’s well-known that the legal framework in France is stricter than the laws of China or the United States. Because it deals with the use of personal data. That’s why Huawei has been accused by the US government of illegally transferring personal data. So, the Chinese society is developing a Safe City project in the city of Valenciennes. It features a number of innovations in the fields of face recognition and behavioral analysis. Other cities are currently serving as technological showcases. Actually, the promise of improving our security is still in progress while complying with the regulations imposed by CNIL, the French Data Protection Regulator, and the recently-introduced GDPR.


Security: the end justifies the means

Caroline Pozmentier is the Deputy Mayor of Marseilles responsible for public safety. In an attempt at providing reassurance, she said:

The Safe City is the first part of the foundation of the Smart City, a real tool to help the community take decisions“.

Meanwhile, others want to go even further, along the lines of Mr. Estrosi, Mayor of Nice. Indeed, he frankly admits that he has software “that could use face recognition tomorrow to identify known individuals, wherever they are in the city. Why would we want to do without that?”.

Nevertheless, while the aim to improve safety and traffic flow is legitimate, the widespread use of video surveillance is worrying, to paraphrase Félix Tréguier, a leading light in the La Quadrature du Net, an online civil liberties organization. Even more so than today, it will be possible to combine the processing of images from cameras with real-time monitoring of social media. Security objectives could include the detection of suspect behavior, and preventing crowds from assembling or moving.

Does our legal framework make it possible to guarantee our individual liberty?

Especially in the face of the increased use of technology. Given that Two-I, a startup founded in Metz, promises to analyze the emotions of passers-by based on surveillance video footage, should we be concerned?

Jean Lessie is the General Secretary of CNIL. During an interview with our colleagues at Le Monde, he was asked whether there needs to be a moratorium on Safe City platforms. And he answered that, in his view, there was a need to engage in democratic debate. Today, few people would seek to dispute that guaranteeing our security involves making use of the latest technologies. Nevertheless, there seems to be no doubt that a more contemporary framework is needed than the one provided by the French Law on Data Processing and Personal Freedom, which dates from 1978.


To read: Will we soon be implanting microchips in employees?