France: National Police to implement illegal facial recognition

Vehicles of the Police nationale
According to the researchers, police officers in other countries like Brazil, the USA and Singapore have also purchased Briefcam software. (Source: IMAGO / Daniel Scharinger)

The French National Police are said to have been using facial recognition software already since years. The investigative magazine, Disclose, reported this, citing internal documents of the Ministry of the Interior. French Data Protection Authorities now want to investigate the accusations.

According to the Disclose report, the software “Video Synopsis” from the Israeli company, Briefcam, was already acquired in 2015. The software is said to evaluate video material with the help of algorithms and offers options for surveillance. For example, vehicles can be tracked based on their license plate using recordings made by different cameras – the software also has facial recognition capabilities.

However, using facial recognition in France is only allowed in a few exceptional cases, according to Disclose. If it has been approved by a court, images can be compared with a police database that contained eight million photos in 2018.

In the case of the National Police, the implementation is, however, illegal. Citing an unnamed source within the police, Disclose reports that facial recognition is already actively being used without any control and without judicial requisition. Any policeman whose service is equipped can request to use Briefcam by transmitting a video or photo,” the person explained to the journalists.

No facial recognition during the Olympics

Indeed, the French government created a legal basis at the beginning of the year for analysing camera recordings using algorithms. The technology is to be implemented during the Olympic Summer Games in 2024. However, the French Senate rejected amendments to implement facial recognition.

According to the report, the police still did not conduct any evaluations of the software by May 2023 for potential consequences regarding data protection – which actually would have been a requirement for using it. However, the Briefcam software was already installed on computers at different police stations, including Paris and Marseilles, already since 2015. Even a police unit that was responsible for wiretapping for serious criminal offences was equipped with facial recognition software.

The provider, Briefcam, explained to the journalists that the authorities from more than 100 French cities are using the software.

The potential implementation of facial recognition has raised concerns even for the authorities themselves. In May 2023, an employee of the General Directorate of the National Police (DNSP) pointed out that it was forbidden to use facial recognition outside of strict legal boundaries. According to the report, already in 2020 a police officer wrote a message that it would be better to not speak about the usage of Briefcam – because it had not been registered with Data Protection Authorities.

However, the Ministry of the Interior wants to continue using the software, Disclose reports. According to Disclose, the expiring software license has already been approved for an extension – and was financed by funds that were confiscated in connection with drug trafficking. These funds should actually be used in the fight against drug trafficking and addiction prevention.

Data Protection Authorities and Ministry of the Interior announce investigation

The General Directorate of the National Police did not respond to inquiries about the situation, according to Disclose. The French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) stated that they have no information about any potential use of Briefcam software.

After publishing the report, the authorities stated on X, formerly Twitter, that an investigation had started.

The French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, also told the newspaper Ouest France on Friday that he ordered an investigation for the claims.

The civil rights organisation, La Quadrature du Net, called the disclosure “shocking”. Leading members of the General Directorate of the National Police as well as the Minister consciously remained silent out of fear for controversy, knowing full well that with the practice they were outside the law.

Additionally, the NGO complains that the envisioned control mechanisms from the Data Protection Authorities to the police internal audit committee would not have worked. Furthermore, financing Briefcam software with “drug competition funds” could be considered misappropriation of public funds, based on the assessment from La Quadrature du Netz.

Philippe Latombe, French member of parliament and board member Data Protection Authority, CNIL, told the news website, Euractiv: “The real question is: How is facial recognition done and by whom?”. As matters stand, the police apparently used Briefcam software for subsequent investigations – potentially facial recognition as well. However, this was done under the supervision of a judge. There are also other scenarios: In the worst case faces were compared without judicial supervision. Latombe viewed as a serious violation of existing laws. (js)